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ZIMBABWE: Failing to Address Schoolgirl Pregnancies

Ignatius Banda

BULAWAYO, Oct 25 2010 (IPS) - Concern over reports of growing numbers of pupils dropping out of school due to pregnancy has rekindled debate over the link between intergenerational sex and HIV infection among Zimbabwe’s youth.

While accurate data on the number of schoolgirls who leave classes because of pregnancy are not available, child rights activists and education experts say the issues that lead to schoolgirl pregnancies, including sexual violence, have largely remained unaddressed.

Intergenerational sex between schoolgirls and older men has been flagged as a key factor.

“Everyone knows schoolgirls fall for much older men because we want cell phones and money as many of our parents cannot buy us these things,” Bulawayo schoolgirl Tatenda Hlatshwayo told IPS.

“Even if we know what happened to other girls who fell pregnant and were ditched, we still follow them, not because we are stupid but because we also want those things,” she said.

Accepted by parents

Teresa Chigovera of Childline, a child protection NGO, says while having sex with a minor – girls under 16 – is a crime in Zimbabwe, what has made assisting the victims difficult is that families accept offers of marriage made by perpetrators.

“While some families report these men to us and the police, they soon withdraw the charges, claiming the much older man responsible has made arrangements to either marry the pregnant schoolgirl or pay for the needs of the unborn child,” Chigovera said.

“But we know the men disappear as soon as the threat of arrest is over,” she added.

The most recent Zimbabwe National Demographic and Health Survey, published in 2007. identifies intergenerational sex as one of the primary HIV risk factors for young women. According to UNAIDS/WHO (2008), the HIV prevalance rate for females aged 15 – 24 is 7.7 percent, compared to just 2.9 percent for males in the same age range.

The worry over high rates of HIV infection and pregnancy also raises questions about the effectiveness of the sex education in schools.

In 2000, the government introduced sex education into the curriculum – covering reproductive health, avoidance of early initiation into sex – as part of efforts to slow the country’s HIV prevalence rate among young people.

“Sex education must be failing to raise awareness if we are still talking about how to deal with learner pregnancies,” said Abigail Dube, a head teacher at a secondary school in Nkulumane High School said.

Thomas Ntini, whose children are in high school, believes the curriculum is failing the country’s school-aged children.

“When [the Ministry of Education] first introduced sex education, many parents complained that this was only serving to corrupt our kids. Now schoolchildren are jumping into sex and getting pregnant and we still do not agree whether to let them go back and learn as mothers with other children,” Ntini said.

“But where are the men who abuse our kids? They disappear and repeat the same elsewhere and you are just plain lucky if your child is not affected,” Ntini continued.

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