Interview: By Vanessa Gonye
ZIMBABWE is one of the countries where early child marriages, teen pregnancies and drug abuse among the youth are rampant.
There are also legal barriers to access to sexual reproductive health services by young people in the country, despite evidence that many already engage in sexual activities at an early age. NewsDay reporter Vanessa Gonye (ND) speaks to MyAge Zimbabwe programmes manager Joseph Njowa (JN) on youth leadership, participation, gender equality, health rights and adolescence.
ND: As MyAge Zimbabwe, what really is your role in advocating for unrestricted access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) facilities for adolescents?
JN: As an organisation, we are pushing for universal access to SRH services. Adolescents and young people are a very diverse group coming from different backgrounds.
It is imperative that they have access to health services, which ultimately allows them to lead healthy lives and make informed decisions with regards to their health.
Specifically, we are focusing on the following areas such as contributing to the movement which entails participating and contributing to consortiums and coalitions pushing for universal access.
We also generate public support for universal access focusing on key non-official players (media, parents, churches, political parties, and others).
As an organisation, we also support parliamentary champions to push the agenda of access of SRH services for young people.
ND: How do you view the current stance on the age of consent and access to SRH facilities?
JN: There are a number of barriers that restrict access to SRH services, and all laws that are meant to promote access to services are regressive.
For example, the Public Health Act gives no access to SRH services for persons below the age of 16 without the consent of a parent or legal guardian. Access is impossible and youth people are the most affected.
ND: What, in your view, is the way forward, considering that things have taken a shift and from as young as 10, there are cases of young people engaging in sexual activities?
JN: We need to repackage our evidence and learn from the responses that come from the key influencers, the Health and Child Care ministry, churches, parents and political parties.
There is overwhelming evidence that shows that there are groups within adolescents and young people that need to access health services.
Not all adolescents and young people have parents who can consent on their behalf. When we look at issues to do with reproductive health, there is a dilemma between young people and adults.
For example, what are the chances that a young person can tell their parent that they need to access healthcare because they have contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STI), or young people who do not have parents or guardians to consent on their behalf.
The current child marriage prevalence is at 33%, which means one in every three girls is getting married below the age of 18.
Reports all over indicate that adolescents are getting pregnant, which is evidence that sexual interactions are happening whether inter-generational, which in most cases is abuse, or peer to peer, or even transactional as we have girls that are selling sex.
One of the ways to support young people in these situations is to at least give them the option to access health services that allow them to protect themselves and also avoid more challenges and complications.
ND: How then do you push the SRH agenda?
JN: There is also need to find other entry points to push the agenda to complement the National Assembly route (working through Cabinet, working through Senate).
There is need to continue engaging and holding the duty bearers responsible to be real about our situation and take steps to address the plight and struggles of young people which are affecting females more than males.
ND: Is adjusting the age of consent and access to SRH facilities the way out of the repercussions of a lack of access to essentials like condoms and other contraceptives?
JN: It is a key contributor because of the environment, in this case that which is informed by the law and does not allow access.
It then also follows that the policy landscape will continue to be a barrier to access to SRH rights.
The manner in which plans and resources are directed is informed by laws and policies, and so for as long as our policies are regressive towards access, it means nothing will change and it also redirects young people to access services through unofficial channels which include those providing services through backdoor channels and community aunties and grandmothers.
ND: October 11 was the International Day of the Girl Child. How do you view the current situation on the girl child and the general access to SRH services?
JN: There is serious inaction on the part of duty bearers to address the plight of adolescent girls and young women.
There is a lot of evidence and a lot of research has been undertaken to provide an accurate situational report on their challenges.
Everyone, including government, is in agreement that we have a problem.
Surprisingly, we are responding like it’s business as usual, which is at the expense of the young people who are expected to lead the country into the future.
COVID-19 has since exacerbated these challenges and these include high teenage pregnancies and the high prevalence of early child marriages, maternal mortality attributed to pregnancy complications and unsafe abortions, and STIs including HIV transmission.
ND: In July, a 14-year-old girl died while giving birth at an apostolic sect shrine. How do you view the concept of marrying off young girls by some sections of society and what do you think should be done?
JN: The Marriage Act provision that outlaws marriage to any person below the age of 18 should be aligned to the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, and such an Act should carry a penalty which excludes a fine, but rather a standard jail term for everyone involved.
Any marriage to a person below 18 years should be deemed a case against the State to allow the State to intervene in the absence of a formal report.
Furthermore, if one in three girls are getting married, then it means we have many girls below 18 years who are mothers.
Let’s respond to the challenges they face while married by ensuring they can access services without the consent of a parent, who in this case, would have married off the child and also ensure we provide gender-based violence response services tailor-made for children in marriage.
ND: What action is your organisation taking on child marriages?
JN: We are pushing for the Marriages Bill that was recently debated and finalised in Parliament to be passed into law.
We are advised that the Bill is stuck in the Senate and might be there for a long time.
The Bill has very progressive provisions that can help the agenda to begin taking a foothold against child marriages.
ND: MyAge is an organisation that focuses on theatre for development and you recently started an online TV show on these issues. How are you using the show to ensure that your organisation’s goals are met?
JN: Young people today are on social media and we are working to develop content that appeals to young people as well as bring edutainment into their online lives.
263 Youth TV is a platform that is run by young people and curated by young people and its content is designed to give young people life skills and information they need to make informed choices about their lives!
ND: Can you say you have registered success so far?
JN: We have pushed for the launching of a school health policy and we have also pushed and supported the development of the guidelines and the curriculum.
We were also part of the movement that pushed for outlawing of child marriages. We have also built the capacities of 25 youth-led organisations in Zimbabwe as well as training and providing opportunities for young advocates including youth and professional exchange programmes.
Our advocacy has also influenced policy implementation resulting in improved access to sexual and reproductive health, information and services for young people.