Inconsistent Laws Put Adolescent Girls At Risk
Human rights watchdog, Amnesty International Zimbabwe has cited the confusion around the legal age of consent for sex, marriage and access to health services saying it leaves adolescent girls more vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies and HIV infection.
The report titled, Lost without knowledge: Barriers to sexual and reproductive health information in Zimbabwe, articulates the challenges faced by adolescent girls in accessing sexual reproductive health services.
According to the report, adolescent girls in Zimbabwe are at risk of harmful consequences, including dying during delivery due inconsistent laws that make it harder for them to access sexual and reproductive health information and services.
As a result, girls face stigma and discrimination, the risk of child marriage, economic hardship and challenges in completing their education.
According to demographic health data for Zimbabwe, nearly 40% of girls and 24% of boys are sexually active before they reach the age of 18.
A series of inconsistencies in the country’s legislative and policy framework related to sexual and reproductive health has contributed to significant confusion on whether people below the age of 18 need parental consent to access sexual health services.
Under Zimbabwean law, the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16.
However, the government’s delay in raising the legal age of marriage to 18, in line with the constitution, has fueled confusion in a context of entrenched taboos surrounding pre-marital sex.
Briefing journalists during the launch of the report, lead director of the research, Louise Carmody said the report found that entrenched taboos around adolescent sexuality, and a lack of affordable healthcare, are also making it harder for adolescents to access the information and services they need.
In his statement, Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa said “The reality is that many adolescents are sexually active before they are 18 and the government must act to ensure that they can access the services and advice they need to help safeguard their health and their futures,”
“While age of consent provisions may be intended to protect against sexual abuse and child marriage, it is unacceptable that they be used to deny adolescents their rights to sexual and reproductive health information and services.”
The report highlights the widespread misconception that only girls who are already pregnant or married can access contraception and HIV services. Amnesty International found limited guidance within related health polices to assist health care providers in determining whether or not an adolescent below the age of 16 is eligible for a particular sexual or reproductive health service.
Amnesty International also found deeply concerning knowledge gaps among adolescent girls the organization interviewed on how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
The human rights group recommended that laws and policies should be clarified to ensure adolescents have the right to access sexual and reproductive health information.
Amnesty International noted that adolescent girls are being barred and shamed when seeking sexual and reproductive health services.
“Zimbabwean authorities must create a conducive environment for adolescent girls to realize and claim their sexual and reproductive rights. Adolescents have a right to comprehensive sexuality education, which should go beyond abstinence-only approaches and challenge gender stereotypes,” said Deprose Muchena.
The report is based on group discussions and interviews with 120 participants, including 50 adolescent girls, from the provinces of Harare, Manicaland, Mashonaland East and Masvingo between February and May 2017.
Studies show that rates of adolescent pregnancy and HIV are increasing, coinciding with declining levels of knowledge related to sexual and reproductive health. Adolescent pregnancy is a major factor behind Zimbabwe’s high rates of child marriage and maternal mortality.
In 2016, 21% of maternal deaths occurred among girls between the ages of 15 and 19.