An alarming number of girls in Zimbabwe, some as young as 12 years old, are already involved in sex encounters, resulting in high incidences of adolescent pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), investigations by The Standard last week revealed.
Interviews with the teenagers, teachers and health specialists established that a lot of girls were indulging in sexual activities at a tender age, but most parents were reluctant to admit it because the subject was sensitive and emotive.
This, health workers said, has resulted in an upsurge of cases of adolescent pregnancies and STIs infections, as most of the teenagers lack knowledge on sexual reproductive health (SRH) issues.
They said an absence of youth friendly public health facilities has also become a barrier to the full implementation of SRH services.
public health facilities has also become a barrier to the full implementation of SRH services.
The Standard established that some schoolchildren were falling prey to kombi drivers, touts and older men who shower them with gifts in return for unprotected sex. Some teenagers offer their bodies to kombi drivers so that they can get free rides to school.
“They [female students] always come to us because they want free rides,” said Tinashe, a kombi conductor, who plies the City-Warren Park route. “Of course, they will have to pay for it in kind. The problem is if I don’t do it with her, she will do it with somebody else, so I have to do it.”
Students and Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (SayWhat) programmes manager, Darlington Muyambwa said most youth had no access to information on sexual reproductive health.
“Some do not have the information about sexual reproductive health at all, and so how can one even seek for a service they do not know about?” he said.
Muyambwa also said the role of the family was key in addressing child pregnancies and early sexual activity among youths.
“Within the normal family set up, sex issues are not for discussion and so young people become uncomfortable talking about them and instead seek other sources like television and the internet,” he said.
According to the 2010/11 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey, a quarter of girls aged between 15 and 19 have already began child bearing.
At least 92% of all sexually active girls within the same age group are in a form of union or marriage, it says.
But other health experts say the figure of one quarter could be too conservative.
Although official statistics on HIV and Aids and STIs among youths were not readily available, some health experts said prevalence “was very high and worrying”.
Sexual and reproductive health specialist, Caroline Maposhere said children, some as young as 12 years did, were beginning to experiment with sex because they watch pornography on television, smart- phones and computers.
She also attributed early sexual activity to moral decadence of parents who are sometimes splashed in local newspapers for cheating on their spouses, as well as watching programmes such as Generations and Muvhango, which are full of sexual innuendos.
Maposhere said children were also driven into sexual activity by poverty and peer pressure.
“The solution is giving them correct information about what will be happening in their bodies and not giving them contraceptives,” Maposhere said.
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) adolescent, sexual and reproductive health specialist, Tamisayi Chinhengo said lack of medically accurate information on puberty, leaves young people dependent on uninformed peer sources or unguided internet searches for information.
UNFPA advocates for delayed sexual debut for teenagers and also the right set of information, skills and services.
“Some cultural or religious norms such as child marriage, also contribute to teenage pregnancy. Other social issues are intergenerational sexual relationships, sexual coercion and transactional sex,” she said. “Girls living in the rural areas are twice as much affected by teenage pregnancies (144/1 000 girls) compared to 70/1 000 urban girls.”
A senior official with the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, who requested anonymity, said youth programmes would be easy to implement if young people are allowed to run their own affairs.
“In our culture these issues are not discussed openly,” said the official. “Parents are not talking to their children about these issues, due to lack of appropriate information or they leave it to the teachers at school to handle.”
Most primary schools in the country have sexual reproductive health lessons.
A teacher at Hallingbury Primary School in Harare said lessons on sex should be introduced early, as most girls were maturing faster than before.
‘HEALTH CENTRES SET UP NOT YOUTH FRIENDLY’
MOST young people told The Standard that the set-up at most public health institutions was not youth friendly.
A student at one of the city’s private colleges, who identified herself only as Ruvimbo, said it was no easy feat to walk into an institution full of people, mostly adults, and ask for sexual reproductive health information.
“The staff just look at you with this look that makes you want to run out of that place,” she said. ”We want younger people who we can relate to in those centres.”