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Let’s safeguard adolescents


WOMEN, on March 8, celebrated the International Women’s Day under the campaign theme #ChooseToChallenge. As the curtain comes down on the Women’s Month, an issue that needs a frank debate is availing of contraceptives to sexually active adolescents. To tackle the problem, we need to have a no-holds barred conversation at community and national levels.

While we recommend parents to openly talk to their adolescents concerning abstinence as the best way to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), HIV and unwanted pregnancies, discussions should also address contraception options. Contraceptives such as birth control pills and condoms block unplanned pregnancy and protect youths from contracting STIs.

Statistics released this month show that almost 5 000 teenagers fell pregnant, while close to 1 800 child marriages were recorded between January and February this year. Women Affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni revealed these shocking statistics early this month in her report on the level of public service delivery related to sexual and gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic in the National Assembly.

“A total of 4 959 got impregnated in such a short period and this means that nearly 5 000 of our girls risk losing their educational opportunity if they do not pursue re-admission.

“Most worrying is the 1 774 who are in matrimonial union before their 18th birthday. They have lost opportunities and have also become vulnerable to other forms of violence, assault, which include economic and emotional abuse,” she said.

If these figures do not alarm the nation, what then will jolt us into action to combat early pregnancies? The painful truth is that they are indulging.

To show the scope of the problem, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), an estimated 21 million girls aged 15-19 years in developing regions become pregnant and approximately 12 million give birth, annually. At least 777 000 births occur to adolescent girls younger than 15 years in developing countries.

“Adolescents who may want to avoid pregnancies may not be able to do so due to knowledge gaps and misconceptions on where to obtain contraceptive methods and how to use them,” the WHO points out on its website.

“Adolescents face barriers to accessing contraception including restrictive laws and policies regarding provision of contraceptive based on age or marital status, health worker bias and/or lack of willingness to acknowledge adolescents’ sexual health needs, and adolescents’ own inability to access contraceptives because of knowledge, transportation, and financial constraints.

“Additionally, adolescents may lack the agency or autonomy to ensure the correct and consistent use of a contraceptive method. At least 10 million unintended pregnancies occur each year among adolescent girls aged 15-19 years in developing regions,” it states.

This is a controversial topic in Zimbabwe, but I strongly feel the need for constructive conversation to change the narrative.

Some will obviously argue that allowing young girls access to contraceptives increases the risks of sexual abuse. However, there is need to separate the two.

Sexual abuse is a crime. Where there is sexual assault, perpetrators should be jailed, as this is a crime against humanity. There is need to raise awareness among young people to report such cases so that the perpetrators are prosecuted.

However, the issue of teenage pregnancies and motherhood is a major concern worldwide. Historically, teenage pregnancies are not a new phenomenon. Nations have grappled with this problem.

According to WHO, early pregnancies among adolescents have major health consequences for the mothers and their babies. Some of the health complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of deaths among girls aged between 15 and 19 years, accounting for 99% of global maternal deaths of women aged 15-49 years. Adolescent mothers aged 10-19 years face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systematic infections than women aged 20-24 year.

Hence countries should prioritise prevention of teenage pregnancies and motherhood.

One way to deal with this disturbing trend is to improve sexual reproductive health education in schools, which has the potential to reach the majority of adolescents, especially in countries with high enrolment rates. Because we cannot turn a blind eye, the government should lift restrictions and allow sexually active teenagers to access cheap contraceptives.

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