Civil Society, NAC Meet Senators To Discuss Age Restrictions To SRHR Access

A consortium of Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) together with the National AIDS Council (NAC yesterday met senators to deliberate on issues hindering young people from accessing Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services.

By Michael Gwarisa

The consortium dubbed the Access Task-force consists of various civil society organizations which include Advocacy Core Team, Right Here Right Now (RHRN), The PITCH Consortium, SHR Africa Trust (SAT), Youth Advocate Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe Young Positives, Youth Engage, My Age and other youth affiliated organizations that have come on board to sign the petition that has since been submitted to parliament to have Age restrictions removed on access to SRH services.

Although Section 76 (1) of the Constitution of Zimbabwe states that: “Every citizen and permanent resident of Zimbabwe has the right to have access to basic health-care services, including reproductive health-care services”, existing legal and policy guidelines limit access.

The Public Health Act of 2018 is not particularly explicit, but its Section 35 has been read to provide that children – defined as persons under the age of 18 – require parental or adult consent to access medical health services.

Presenting before the Senate thematic committee on HIV and AIDS, Compass Project Country Coordinator for Advocacy Core Team  Advocacy Core Team, Diana Mailosi said maintaining age restrictions to accessing health services had resulted in an increase in maternal deaths among adolescent and young girls, increased HIV infection in young people especially girls, illegal abortions and a rise in school dropouts.

What issues exactly are we talking about here? So, our national teenage pregnancy rate is standing at approximately 22% which means one in every five girls is pregnant o expecting. If we are to take girls 18 and below, we realize that one in every five is either pregnant or has already given birth before. That is why you find that our national teenage pregnancy rates are ridiculously high compared to other countries in the region.

“In some cases, because people are not willing to keep the pregnancies, we find ourselves having a lot of abortions coming into the picture as well as the young girls are trying to get rid of the pregnancies that they have carried and in Zimbabwe, 70 000 abortions and complications per year is a very high figure,” said Mailosi.

She added that in some cases, some teenagers don’t end up terminating the pregnancies but end up dropping out of school.

“I know that we now have a progressive education act which allows school girls to continue with their education even after falling pregnant but we know some of the circumstances that come when a young girl falls pregnant, we usually then end up finding them dropping out.

“If you look at the ministry of education statistics, they have almost 42% of a class of students they cannot explain why they dropped out of school. They have just been termed absconded. If we also try to look back in the ministry health statistics during the minister Lazarus Dokora era there was a time, he talked about 4 500 girls not being able to proceed to form 1 from grade 7 because they had gotten pregnant.”

Meanwhile, according to statistics, Zimbabwe loses 2 400 women to maternal deaths every year and 15% of that national maternal mortality rate are young girls or as a result of teenage pregnancies. The United Nations also issued a paper where they were also estimating that Zimbabwe was spending close to US$11 Million towards addressing pregnancy related complications.

Mailosi also bemoaned the lack of necessary information required to interact with comprehensive information and knowledge on HIV, reproductive health services, Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) among others and this widened the HIV knowledge gap amongst young people.  According to official statistics, approximately 48% of young people do now know their HIV status and majority are lagging behind in terms of uptake of HIV treatment.

SAT Country Director, Dr Mildred Mushunje said a the issue of the age of consent to accessing SRH services has been topical for a while and there was need to advocate and raise more awareness to ensure the issues are addressed.

“We need to be very clear what it is we mean by the term health services. We talk about access to health services in the Public Health Act but we are not clear what it is we mean there. As a consortium, we have done our researches, we have done some consultations with clinical psychologists, child protection experts, social workers, medical practitioners to discuss with them around these issues.”

Meanwhile, reading a speech on behalf of the National AIDS Council (NAC) Chief Executive Officer Dr Bernard Madzima, NAC Communications director Ms Medeline Dube said the age restrictions to accessing health services was blocking child headed and orphaned children from accessing services

“Over the years, tremendous progress has been made in the national response to HIV and AIDS which has seen HIV prevalence dropping from as high as 89% in 1999 to 14% in 2015 according to the Zimbabwe Demographic Health Survey (ZDHS).

“The HIV incidence also has halved from 0.8% to 0.4% during the same period. The number of people on HIV treatment has also increased from 460 000 in 2011 to 1.2 million in 2019. The number of AIDS related deaths has also dropped from 3000 around 2005 to less than 1000 as of 2019. However. Evidence shows that young people are more susceptible to HIV infection. Some are born with it while others get through sexual abuse and early sexual debut,” said Ms Dube.

She added that the age restrictions which have been brought about by the Public Health Act of 2018 make it difficult for young people to access health services as it requires them to be in the company of a parents or guardian.

“You will also realize that because of these restrictions, even those who are orphaned they fail to access because there is no parent. Child headed families because they are required to bring an adult at times may find it difficult to do so.”

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