Religious groups embrace birth control despite taboos

HARARE - Religious groups in Zimbabwe are breaking away from social and religious taboos about the use of contraception and taking control of their own bodies — even if they have to do it secretly.

The change is happening as health and human-rights advocates sound the alarm over the number of women and girls losing their lives and wombs to unsafe abortions in a country where abortion is illegal, and as Zimbabwe’s Health and Child Care ministry try to get a grip on the country’s maternal mortality crisis.

Save the Children Zimbabwe programmes manager Linile Malunga said church members, including those from the apostolic sect, were seeking sexual reproductive health interventions from clinics.

“On condoms, you won’t even believe it, in as much as most churches are against the issue; they are coming for contraceptives, including condoms. If you approach them as a group, they might all say ‘no, we don’t want condoms’, but the same people come in the thick of the night, away from the public eye, to say ‘please may we have some condoms, blood transfusions or even contraceptive pills’ and we help them,” Malunga said during a media sensitisation meeting.

“Even some who used to say they don’t go to hospitals to seek medical attention have now changed, probably after seeing the multitudes who are dying as a result of curable ailments.”

In an effort to tackle teenage pregnancies, the Education ministry rekindled the suggestion that contraceptives should be made available in schools.

The proposal was met with hostility by many parents, and the two sides have failed to reach an agreement.

Up to 59 percent of sexually active women in Zimbabwe have access to contraceptives — among the highest levels in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the United Nations Population Fund.

Zimbabwe is aiming to increase this to 68 percent by 2020, based on commitments made at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning.

But evidence pointing to an increase in abortions among teenagers highlights the difficulties schoolgirls face accessing contraception in the predominantly Christian country where pregnancy out of wedlock is still stigmatised.

Government has stepped up efforts to make contraceptives accessible to adolescents under a recently unveiled National Adolescent and Youth Sexual and Reproductive Health Strategy.

“A teenage girl in the rural areas is more likely to be exposed to the risk of pregnancy compared to their urban counterparts. The proportion of teenagers who have begun childbearing decreases as wealth increases,” the strategy reads.

“The 2016 adolescents fertility study revealed that nine percent of the adolescents aged 10 to 19 years had never been pregnant. When broken down to by age group, 17 percent of the adolescents aged 15 to 19 years and 0, 2 percent among the 0-14 years-old had experienced pregnancy. Adolescent pregnancies are more than twice higher among girls with primary education than among those who attend secondary school.”

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