HARARE, ZIMBABWE — Panashe sits on a bench outside a building in Mbare, an old suburb of Harare. She rubs her belly occasionally, as she soaks up the sun. She is five months pregnant. At 16, this is her second pregnancy.
She first got pregnant at 14, after she bowed to peer pressure and began having sex with a 17-year-old boy. “I didn’t know that sleeping with a person once would make me pregnant,” she says. “And I didn’t know that there are ways to prevent pregnancy after having sex.”
Panashe, who asked to use only her first name due to the stigma associated with teenage pregnancy, says she was too ashamed to go to school. She dropped out.
She struggled through her first pregnancy, sometimes going to bed hungry because the grandparents who cared for her were too poor. She went to the hospital once to register her pregnancy but never visited again because she didn’t know the importance of prenatal care. When she went into labor, she developed complications and delivered by emergency cesarean section. The baby didn’t survive.
As Zimbabwe grapples with an alarmingly high number of teenage pregnancies, public health advocates are asking the government to give adolescents access to reproductive health services and education to avoid cases like Panashe’s. At the core of their campaign is the argument that adolescents under 16 — the age of sexual consent in Zimbabwe — should have access to those services without their parents’ permission. But they are running into fierce opposition from the government, and cultural and religious leaders, who say such a move would only encourage more adolescents to have sex.
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From 2015 to 2020, Zimbabwe recorded an adolescent birth rate of 86 per 1,000 girls ages 15 to 19, according to a study released by the United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, in May. Although the U.N. agency says birth rates among teens have dropped by almost 20% worldwide when compared with a similar study from 2000 to 2005, Zimbabwe’s rate is still extremely high — nearly twice the global average of 44 births per 1,000 adolescents.
Sithembiso Nyoni, the minister of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development, told Parliament in March that Zimbabwe recorded nearly 5,000 new teenage pregnancies in the two previous months. Public health advocates blame the crisis on existing laws, which they say are too vague and don’t take into consideration other important factors.
“How, for example, can children sexually abused by their parents or guardians bring their abuser to give consent on their behalf?” asks Munyaradzi Andeck Chimwara of Advocacy Core Team, a coalition of 25 local health care advocacy organizations.
Last year, Advocacy Core Team asked Parliament to amend Section 35 of the Public Health Act, the area of the law that addresses informed consent. In June, the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health and Child Care, and the Thematic Committee on HIV and AIDS recommended that the law be updated to allow adolescents under 16 access to reproductive health services without parental consent.
Vice President Constantino Guvheya Chiwenga, who is also the minister of Health and Child Care, rejected the committees’ recommendation. He told Parliament in June that although Section 35 doesn’t explicitly address access to reproductive health services for adolescents under 16, they are children and therefore require parental consent. Giving reproductive health services to minors also has social consequences, said Chiwenga.
“This will be a time bomb for immorality against the diverse cultural and religious communities in Zimbabwe,” he said.
Christopher Chisale, dean of students at Harare Theological College, agrees with Chiwenga. He says recognizing adolescents as adults merely because there is a crisis follows no logic.
“Allowing these kids free rein in this area would mean they live like animals,” he says. “Sex becomes an exciting social experiment for them.”
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But Shepherd Chapare, a 48-year-old father of three, says adolescents should be given access to reproductive health services because they are having sex anyway. “We should clamor for these services to be given to them so they know when to use them.”
Fortune Daniel Molokele, a member of Parliament who is on the health and child committee, says the government’s position disappoints him because it’s not realistic. The changes petitioners asked for were based on evidence and needed a more practical response, he says. He and some lawmakers are planning to form a caucus to keep pushing.
“This fight is far from over,” he says.
Others, like Edward Tsango, founding director of I AM Zimbabwe Trust, a nongovernmental organization that works with vulnerable youths, are calling for a more moderate approach. He opposes giving children under 16 access to reproductive health services without parental consent but supports sex education for adolescents.
“Children should be taught about the dangers of engaging in sex when they are still young,” he says.
Panashe says she wishes she’d had that kind of knowledge before she started having sex. Even at 16, she still doesn’t quite understand how her body works reproductively, she says.
“I am pregnant again, and it’s something that I didn’t plan,” Panashe says.
The thought of losing another baby lingers in her mind, so this time she’s trying her best to do things differently. She goes to a prenatal clinic twice a month, and tries to eat well. But she still regrets that her choice to have sex at 14 ended her education. Without a source of income to take care of the baby she’s expecting, she has moved in with her child’s father, who has promised to marry her in December. He is 18 years old.