Parly stirs hornet's nest Should minors have access to contraceptives?

DEBATE in the National Assembly to enable minors as young as 12 to obtain contraceptives has won the backing of several stakeholders.

The Health and Child Care Parliamentary Portfolio Committee is openly advocating for underage children to access sexual and reproductive health services, arguing that rights do not come into being magically only when one attains the State-defined age of majority.

Chaired by Ruth Labode, the committee’s intentions have been met with suspicions with various social media platforms awash with rumours that Parliament is pushing for the age of consent to be reviewed downwards from 16 years to 12 years.

In the wake of the anger and fury among parents and guardians irked by social media reports, Labode was forced to clarify matters, saying her committee was of the view that access to medical attention for sexually active minors be reduced from 16 to 12 in pursuit of full realisation of the right to health provided in section 76 of the supreme law. 
In other words, Members of Parliament want a law that explicitly allows minors, starting at 12, to consent to contraceptive services.

“The current law does not permit girls below 16 years to seek sexual and reproductive health services from a clinic on their own. They must be accompanied by either of their parents or a legal guardian,” Labode explained to State media last week.

“For example, if a girl below 16 years is suffering from a sexually transmitted disease (STD), she cannot seek treatment on her own. In fact, if the caregiver proceeds to assist the young girl without the consent of her parents and the girl experiences some side effects or complications, the nurse can actually be sued by the girl’s family for attending to the minor without their consent.”

The Parliament debate also reflects the recognition that while parental involvement is desirable, many minors will remain sexually active but not seek services if they have to tell their parents.
As a result, confidentiality is vital to ensuring minors’ access to contraceptive services. 

Even as Zimbabwe has no relevant policy or case law or an explicit limitation, doctors may commonly provide medical care to a mature minor without parental consent, given that the law allows a minor to consent to related health services.

“Girls are having sex as early as 12 years, as demonstrated by a report given by former Primary and Secondary Education minister Lazarus Dokora. An organisation called Katswe Sisterhood also exposed the rampant young sex-workers in Epworth. This issue was extensively debated in the Eighth Parliament but no solution was proffered,” Labode said.

“Currently the Parliament is sitting on a petition from the Chiredzi community asking Parliament to investigate the alarming levels of child sex work and illegal abortions in the community.”
Section 76 (1) of the Constitution states that “every citizen and permanent resident of Zimbabwe has the right to have access basic health-care services including reproductive health-care services.”

Children rights defenders and organisations advocating for sexual and reproductive health rights that spoke to the Daily News on Sunday said the move will empower adolescents who are already engaging in sexual activities anyway to negotiate for safer sex, thereby reducing the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV.

Statistics already indicate that children as young as 12 years old are sexually active, with Dokora saying over 4 500 children did not proceed from Grade 7 to Form 1 due to pregnancy and early marriages.

Reverend Taylor Nyanhete, Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children director, said there is overwhelming evidence on the ground which shows that adolescents are sexually active and are being exposed to unintended pregnancies, and STIs which he attributed to lack of access to Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) information.

He said the move by the thematic committee is a step towards ensuring universal access to SRH information and services that are friendly and age-appropriate.

“It’s a key step in reducing cases on unintended pregnancies, STI and new HIV infections. We are in support of the move.
“With access to SRH information and services, the children will be able to make informed decisions and if they engage in sex then they will use protection to prevent pregnancies and HIV infection,” Nyanhete said.

However, Nyanhete warned that without adequate information and explanation, it might appear as if concerned stakeholders are encouraging children to engage in sexual activities, meant to promote immorality amongst the adolescents.

Students and Youth Working on Reproductive Health Action Team (Saywhat) director Jimmy Wilford said minors are already indulging in sex, with a 2016 adolescent fertility study indicating that the unmet contraception needs for adolescents stand at 12,8 percent.

Wilford noted that SRH delivery for adolescents is hampered by attitudinal barriers and perceptions of health care service providers at health centre facilities.

“There has been growing evidence of adolescents and minors who fall pregnant at a tender age. One such case is the recorded Zimbabwe’s youngest mother who fell pregnant at the age of 9,” Wilford said.

“In this context, denying adolescents access to SRH services or imposing consent of parent or guardian as a pre-requisite to access SRH services presents a real danger of reversing the gains of positive living.”

Children as young as nine are accessing maternal and antenatal health care services in Manicaland Province.
Statistics from the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council indicate that Manicaland Province recorded the highest teenage pregnancy prevalence rate which stood at 27 percent, which is above the national average of 22 percent.

In 2015, former Prosecutor-General Johannes Tomana torched a storm when he was quoted in the media saying children as young as 12, particularly those who are school drop outs, can marry and consent to sex.

Parents and children’s rights defenders were incensed by Tomana’s sentiments, with some pushing for his dismissal from office.
This prompted legislators to table a motion to review the age of consent for girls from 16 years to 18 years, which is yet to come into force. 

This was after the Constitutional Court outlawed child marriage in 2016 after two former child brides took the government to court in a ground-breaking case to challenge the practice that is rife in the southern African nation.

Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi asked for child marriage to be declared illegal and unconstitutional, saying it was a form of child abuse which trapped girls in lives of poverty and suffering.

The court ruled that as of January 20, 2016 no one in Zimbabwe may enter into any marriage, including customary law unions, before the age of 18, and struck down a section of the Marriage Act which allows girls to marry at 16 but boys at 18.

Nearly a third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before they are 18 and four percent before they turn 15, depriving them of an education, increasing the likelihood of sexual violence, and putting them at risk of death or serious injury in childbirth.

 

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