Malet*, 14, stands in the long queue at the maternity clinic in Harare. She is here for her routine checkup. Most of the people in the queue are teenage girls.
Malet fell pregnant the first time she had sex. Her baby is due in two months.
“I regret it today, but I could not get rid of the baby,” says Malet, who lives in Mbare, one of Zimbabwe’s oldest townships. “My boyfriend denied responsibility, so I am all alone.”
Her parents have agreed to support her and will make sure she returns to school after she has given birth. “I am glad my parents offered to take care of me and take me back to school. But this is not the same for other girls, who are staying with abusive boyfriends.”
Malet’s mother, Gladys Munengami, 40, knows the reason for her daughter’s pregnancy. “Covid-19 has ruined our children. Here in Mbare, many mothers are in pain, these children have started experimenting with sex and we cannot control them,” she says.
Between January and February, almost 5,000 teenage pregnancies were recorded in Zimbabwe and nearly 2,000 girls under 18 were married. According to the World Bank, the country’s adolescent fertility rate has been declining over the past few years, but there are concerns that the pandemic will reverse the trend.
In an attempt to address the problem, MPs and civil society groups have proposed that under 16-year-olds are able to obtain contraceptives without parental consent and should be allowed access to abortion services. The age of consent in Zimbabwe is 18.
The proposal was rejected by Constantino Chiwenga, Zimbabwe’s vice-president and health minister, who said: “Since a child under the age of 16 years cannot consent to sexual intercourse in practice, it is presumed that a child under the age of 16 years does not need contraceptives.
“Emergency contraceptives would be considered a form of medical treatment and therefore individuals aged under 16 would require parental consent to access them in practice.”
While Chiwenga’s words drew widespread support from Zimbabwe’s largely conservative society, where sex is a taboo subject, health workers and teachers say a solution needs to be found.
“The government must do something in schools or start a programme of educating these children at home because we have a serious problem on our hands. Most of these girls are too young to endure labour and that puts them at risk,” a midwife told the Guardian on condition on anonymity.
Some teachers’ organisations have led calls for the government to permit the distribution of contraceptives to girls in schools.
“The challenge has to be honestly confronted and our solutions should be aimed at safeguarding the future of our children, not to posture as moralists. Contraceptives will not encourage children to have sex but will protect them from early marriages,” says Obert Masaraure, the president of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers Association.
Masaraure also called for a mandatory sex education programme in schools. “We should come out of the denial mode and face the reality that our children are engaging in sexual activities.”
However, Raymond Majongwe, secretary-general of the Progressive Teachers Association of Zimbabwe, urged caution: “This matter needs to be handled with utmost care lest we open a Pandora’s box. The issue of contraceptives has divided opinion. The most important thing is to be clear on what we want to address. We need to understand [what] we are dealing with, otherwise it will backfire.”
Ekenia Chifamba, director of Shamwari Yemwanasikana, an organisation fighting for girls’ rights, says a holistic approach to confronting teenage pregnancies is required. “Making available contraceptives, increasing awareness on safe sex and abstinence is the available solution to the dilemma of teenage pregnancies. There is a need to make sure that these teenagers have access to information on sexual and reproductive health at their disposal so they can make informed decisions.
Chifamba says the government’s move to shoot down the proposal on contraceptives was ill-informed. “This is not a move in the right direction. We cannot run away from the fact that we need to alleviate the new pandemic of teenage pregnancies even if it means moving away from our morals and cultural values.”
Ruth Labode, an MP who has been pushing for the government to allow teens to get contraceptives, said: “We will continue advocating and monitoring the number of teen pregnancies, which are growing.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identity. Guardian