BIKITA, ZIMBABWE — When Delight Ziwacha was 16, she didn’t know one could get pregnant after having unprotected sex only once. A friend told her that it had to happen multiple times. So, after experimenting with alcohol during a high school soccer tournament, she had unprotected sex with her 17-year-old boyfriend. A month and a half later, she found out she was pregnant.
“It only happened that one time,” she says.
Ziwacha, now 19, doesn’t remember ever receiving any sex education in school. The little she knew was from conversations with friends.
But Zimbabwe does have a Comprehensive Sexuality Education program, meant to equip young people like Ziwacha with knowledge about sex and help reduce teenage pregnancies, which have been soaring in the country, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. Government data shows that in January and February 2021, nearly 5,000 girls age 17 and under got pregnant.
The trend has called the current sex education offered in schools into question. Some say it falls short and are asking the government to redesign it, while others want the curriculum scrapped altogether, saying that it only encourages young people to engage in early sex.
The Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education introduced Zimbabwe’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education program in 2015. However, it is not a stand-alone subject. In secondary school, it is a topic under the umbrella of the Guidance and Counselling syllabus along with numerous other topics such as human growth and development and norms and values. In primary school, it is under the Family, Religion and Moral Education syllabus.
Munashe, a primary school teacher who requested to use only his first name for fear of retribution, blames the curriculum design for the steady increase in the number of teenage pregnancies. The design, he says, is evidence of the government’s lack of seriousness in sex education.
“Maybe if treated as a subject on its own, then it will be given enough time and become impactive on behavior change of youths toward sexual activities,” he says.
The government isn’t entirely to blame, Munashe says. He admits that some schools have neglected sex education. Some do not teach it or examine it. Other schools, he adds, leave the responsibility of sex education to nonprofits.
“There are organizations that come and teach learners in schools, but in the absence of funding, no sex education happens,” he says.
Tawanda, a secondary school teacher who also prefers to go by his first name for fear of retribution, agrees with Munashe. “The challenge is it [sex education] is not examinable. Therefore, it doesn’t contribute to the learners’ passes,” he says. A guidance and counseling teacher, Tawanda sees a pressing need for schools to take sex education seriously and assess it for it to be effective.
Schools can work only with the available resources, and this is part of the problem. Munashe says there is not enough government funding to implement the sex education curriculum. But Taungana Ndoro, the director of communications and advocacy at the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education, says the government already provides a budget for this.
Panashe Sithole is an 18-year-old member of Parliament in Zimbabwe’s Junior Parliament, a parallel body under the Zimbabwe Youth Council. She sees the need for a complete overhaul of the current sex education program.
“It should be put as a stand-alone” subject, she says.
Sithole, who is in secondary school, says that sex education is rarely taught in her school. While the Junior Parliament advocates for issues affecting young people, the group doesn’t convene as often.
More is needed to complement sex education and reduce teenage pregnancies, Sithole says, such as distributing free contraceptives in schools. However, Parliament has previously rejected this proposal.
Not everyone thinks a redesign is necessary. Some say introducing sex education has only stirred the hornet’s nest. Exposing young people to this subject has encouraged more to engage in early sex and led to more unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, says Chenai Muti, a parent.
In “our generation, unwanted pregnancies were rare because we were not taught about [this] adult stuff. Sex issues should be learned by one once they are married, not before,” says Muti.
Ekenia Chifamba says this is one of the many myths surrounding sex education that she has encountered in her work. The founding director of Shamwari Ye Mwanasikana, a nonprofit that empowers girls, says this information only equips young people to make informed decisions on their sexuality.
It’s for this reason that her organization has been offering peer counseling to young women. “They meet up and discuss issues that they specifically face, for them to be able to draw strength and lessons from each other,” she says.
In fact, young people already have access to some of this information, whether schools teach sex education or not, says Vimbai Berete, a parent. “Either on the internet or on social media,” she says. “I feel it’s better that they get formal sex education than us pretending that they are innocent.”
Berete has already broached the subject with her 6-year-old daughter, but only what she considers appropriate. “I cannot talk to her about sex now, but I have already created that relationship where I can actually talk to her when the time is right. As parents we should play our part and not leave everything to teachers,” she says.
Teachers aren’t adequately trained to offer this kind of education, she adds. “Just like a sport teacher where a teacher can have a degree in sport, the same should be done for sex education.”
Torerayi Moyo agrees. The chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education acknowledges shortcomings in the sex education offered in schools and a lack of training for teachers.
“It is clear that there is a need to review the module to be more informative and life-changing to learners in schools,” he says.
The committee is working with the ministry of education to ensure that young people have access to age-appropriate information on sexuality in schools, Moyo adds. For example, through the recently promulgated Education Act, officials will appoint sexual and reproductive health personnel in schools.
“As a committee, we think it is progressive, as this will open up opportunities for the learners in school to be taught or be given information on sexual and reproductive rights,” Moyo says.
Many other policies aimed at curbing teenage pregnancies are also taking shape as the government implements the Education Act, he adds.
Although the committee will continue engaging the ministry to ensure that schools adequately teach sex education, Moyo says all stakeholders need to work together to curb teenage pregnancies. “The lessons picked from the COVID-19 pandemic are crucial in the policymaking process.”
Charity, who requested to use her first name for fear of stigma, got pregnant when she was 15. Although she knew a little bit about the dangers of unprotected sex from older women around her, she never received adequate sex education in school. Charity, whose child is almost 2 years old, says her school would offer something related to sex education toward the end of each term, but there wasn’t much depth to it.
“We were separated — boys from girls — and told to behave well during school holidays, but that is the only time we were taught about sex,” she says. “It was more of a cautionary tale for the holidays.”
Evidence Chenjerai is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Mutare, Zimbabwe.