By Staff Reporter
Female adolescents in Zimbabwe are at risk of harmful consequences, including dying in childbirth, warns Amnesty International (AI).
According to a report AI released on Thursday, inconsistent laws in that country made it harder for adolescents to access sexual and reproductive health information and services. According to demographic health data for Zimbabwe, nearly 40 per cent of girls and 24 per cent of boys are sexually active before they reach the age of 18.
The report, titled Lost without knowledge: Barriers to sexual and reproductive health information in Zimbabwe, documents how widespread confusion around the legal age of consent for sex, marriage and accessing health services is leaving adolescent girls more vulnerable to unwanted pregnancies and at higher risk of HIV infection.
The report stated that as a result, girls faced stigma and discrimination, the risk of child marriage, economic hardship and challenges in completing their education.
“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,” Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for Southern Africa stated.
“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 found that entrenched taboos around adolescent sexuality, and a lack of affordable healthcare, were also making it harder for adolescents to access the information and services they need.
A series of inconsistencies in the country’s legislative and policy framework related to sexual and reproductive health has contributed to significant confusion over 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.
The report highlighted widespread misperception that only girls who were already pregnant or married could access contraception and HIV services.
AI also found deeply concerning knowledge gaps among adolescent girls the organisation interviewed on how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Adolescent girls said they had been barred from clinics and shamed when trying to access services because of their age.
AI called on the Zimbabwean authorities to raise awareness on the right of adolescents to access sexual and reproductive health information and services. The organization also recommends that laws and policies should be clarified to ensure adolescents have the right to access sexual and reproductive health information, education and services, irrespective of their age and without parental consent.
“Zimbabwean authorities must create a conducive environment for adolescent girls to realise 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,” stated Muchena.
“Our research shows that harmful gender stereotypes mean girls face especially severe consequences if they become pregnant, including forced marriages and the end of their educational aspirations.”