Rescuing the little ones from themselves

Harmony Agere —
IN mid-October, the Mberengwa community woke up to shocking news that a local Grade Seven girl had gone into labour while writing her final English examination.

She later gave birth at home but the incident left teachers, fellow students and the girl’s guardian stunned as none of them had noticed the pregnancy or expected it from the ‘innocent minor’.

How the pregnancy came about or what happened next after birth remains unknown to the world. But in a similarly traumatising experience, another Grade Seven girl in Masvingo had earlier in September exposed a rape ordeal through a Shona essay.

She had tried in vain to tell her mother that she was being abused by her 18-year-old cousin. Therefore she found her voice in a school essay.

“Ndikaudza mai havatendi, izvi zvinondishungurudza zvikuru. Ndavakutya kuti zvimwe ndinogona kubatira pamuviri (If I tell my mother she does not believe me and now I am afraid I will get pregnant),” read the emotive essay.

The suspect was later arrested after the teacher who marked the essay reported the matter to the police. It’s a pity the girl had to share her trauma in such a manner.

However, the two experiences reflect a stark reality of how the sexual and reproductive health of thousands of girls in primary schools is being compromised.

This was confirmed in parliament last week by Primary and Secondary Education Minister Dr Lazarus Dokora when he disclosed that about 4 500 Grade Seven pupils will not be able to proceed to Form One as they either fell pregnant or got married.

“Sadly, 4 500 of our girls and boys will not be seeking Form One places in 2017, having regrettably left school owing to pregnancies and marriages,” said Dr Dokora.

Early last year, the minister had to move in to quash rumours that Government intended to dish out condoms to school children in response to the fact that they were having sexual relations, putting themselves at risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases and having unwanted pregnancies.

At the launch of guidelines for people affected by sexual violence last week, Health and Childcare deputy minister Aldrin Musiiwa also confirmed that minors are topping the lists of survivors.

“I am reliably informed that at district level on average, we have 15 new cases that are attended to every month, mainly of child survivors.

“Though the increasing numbers could be an indicator of increased awareness and empowerment of children and communities to report incidents of sexual violence, this is quite worrisome,” he said.

While there has always been consensus on the rising rate of child sexual abuse, not many people believe that this can actually happen in their homes, right under their noses.

But while in some cases children are taken advantage of, surveys show that minors are also indulging in sex amongst themselves. The 2015 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey whose final results were released last week confirms this shocking reality.

As such, some experts think that children should have access to sexual health services. Responding to Minister Dokora’s revelations in parliament last week, Matebeleland North legislator Dr Ruth Labode suggested that children should be allowed access to sexual health services.

“The Demographic health survey has just come out and it is confirming what you are saying, that children are engaging in sex as early as at 12 years of age and they are dying from illegal abortions, they are dying from HIV, they are dying from early pregnancies.

“For me it raises policy issues.

“We should allow these children to access health services, everything else that you access from condoms to everything, because they are dying,” she said.

According to the Demographic Health Survey, “22 percent of adolescent females aged between 15 and 19 in Zimbabwe have begun childbearing”.

The survey report further says, “One in six teenagers (17 percent) has given birth and another five percent are pregnant with their first child.

“As expected, the proportion of women aged 15 to 19 who have begun childbearing increases with age, from three percent among women aged 15 to 48 percent among women aged 19.”

The survey also shows that early childbearing among teenagers is almost three times higher in rural areas than in urban areas.

By province, early childbearing is highest in Mashonaland Central and Matabeleland South (31 percent and 30 percent, respectively) and lowest in Harare (10 percent).

The proportion of teenagers who have begun childbearing decreases as wealth increases. Five times more teenagers in the lowest wealth quintile (34 percent) have begun childbearing compared with teenagers in the highest wealth quintile (6 percent).

This has yet again called into question the country’s laws and policies concerning the protection of minors from sexual abuse.

The idea of introducing contraceptives for young children has often propped up but has also been repeatedly shot down on the basis that it will encourage kids to indulge in sexual activities.

However, experts say the discourse surrounding teenage pregnancies and child marriages should now consider the reality that the minors are indulging amongst themselves and should be protected from that.

Charles Siwela of Youth Age told a recent workshop on adolescent health that current laws and policies are not adequate to protect young children.

“To generate demand for HIV and sexual and reproductive health and rights services, country programmes need to revise the current ineffective and inadequate laws and policies that exist and act as a barrier to young people’s access to services, such as age of consent laws.”

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