When Zimbabwean education minister Lazarus Dokora announced that, last year alone, 4,500 girls were unable to sit their primary-school leaving exams due to pregnancy and child marriages, one woman went against tradition and suggested to parliament it was time for more practical solutions to addressing adolescent sexuality. Ruth Labode, chairwoman of the health and childcare parliamentary portfolio, was booed by parliamentarians when she said girls below the age of 18 should be allowed to access sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services. But her comments succeeded in reigniting the debate around adolescent sexuality in Zimbabwe.
According to the country’s 2015 Demographic and Health Survey, 32.4 percent of women aged 20-24 were married by the age of 18, while 41 percent of women in the same age bracket had had sexual intercourse for the first time by the time they turned 18. Of girls aged 15-19 years, 22 percent had begun childbearing or were expecting their first child.
Women & Girls spoke with Labode about her recommendations for helping adolescent girls access SRH services and how that would help reduce unwanted teen pregnancies and school dropouts.
Women & Girls: How widespread is the problem of teen pregnancy and school dropout among girls in Zimbabwe?
Ruth Labode: The magnitude of the problem is difficult to estimate. The high statistics we were given by the Minister of Education were only of those grade seven students who got pregnant and parents reported it to the school. But a lot of girls are actually dropping out due to pregnancies, and their parents do not report it. The girls just leave school, and nobody really knows where they have gone.
Women & Girls: Can you give us an overview of the current SRH services available to girls in Zimbabwe?
Labode: This is the challenge that we are facing with adolescent sexuality. Girls below the age of 18 cannot access SRH services because the constitution says the age of consent is 18. Which means that anybody under the age of 18 cannot access services except in the company of their guardian – and our African culture does not allow any mother to accompany their child to access family planning services or to get tested for STDs.
Women & Girls: How does a lack of such services affect girls in the country?
Labode: It simply means their progress is stopped halfway. It has resulted in an increase in maternal mortality rates due to illegal abortions, the incidence of HIV in girls has gone up, there are high rates of teenage pregnancy and some girls are forced to give birth to children they do not want and end up dumping them.
Women & Girls: What kind of solution do you propose?
Labode: I recommend that we review the Public Health Act and add a policy that protects any health worker who attends to a child who is under the age of 18 and provides them with SRH services. In other words, the government should put a clause within the act to say that while we acknowledge that the age of consent is 18, anyone who is sexually active before that should be treated as an adult.
Women & Girls: Should there be any age restrictions within this clause?
Labode: As far as I am concerned, SRH services should be available to anyone. The students the minister mentioned, who were unable to sit their primary school leaving exams, were supposed to be going to Form 1, which means they should be around 12 years old and were already sexually active at that age. So, if I am voluntarily sexually active at the age of 12, what should I do? I should be able to access SRH services.
Women & Girls: Why do you think there is such strong resistance to your proposal?
Labode: Because we are traditionalists and we are in denial, which is natural for a parent. As a grandmother, if my grandchild came to me and said she was sexually active, I would start by crying and shouting. I would only recover later because I have this knowledge. Parents expect their children to be virgins at that age, so the realization that they are not is very traumatic. Nationally, we are also in denial. Go to South Africa, and at the age of 12 you can access SRH services. It is not taboo; they have made it a law.
Women & Girls: And for those girls in Zimbabwe who do fall pregnant? What more can be done for them?
Labode: I think the time has come for Zimbabwe to also start considering the issue of possible legal abortions in health institutions, because we have a lot of adolescents dying from unsafe abortions. Statistics show that the number of abortions has decreased in Ethiopia and other countries where you can access legal abortions. You find that when one goes for an abortion, they are also provided with family planning options and as a result they do not return for a second abortion. Unlike in Zimbabwe, where you find that the same girl has had four abortions and eventually gets married and is unable to have a child due to complications from these unsafe abortions – if she doesn’t die along the way.