Pennelope Kasere Correspondent
Empowering young people to realise their rights, to make informed choices about their own bodies, their own lives and the world they live in is a matter of justice and a driver of a lifetime of returns.
I recently attended the launch of the Campaign to End Early and Unintended Pregnancies in the Southern Africa region. Over lunch I sat listening to interesting conversations around the table from female colleagues from different countries within the region.
One colleague shared a story of how as a young girl she had gone to the clinic to try and get contraceptives and condoms but was denied by a nurse who gave her a long lecture on abstinence and waiting until marriage. She left that clinic with no contraceptives or condoms and a few months down the line she was pregnant.
Another colleague shared how she got pregnant at the age of 15 and was forced to elope to the man responsible for her pregnancy.
“I was so ashamed, a disappointment to my family and at one point even thought of taking my life,” she recalled. “Honestly, I didn’t want to get married but what options were there? By 17 I was a mother of two. I had not completed school and had no hope for my life.”
She was given a second chance in life by an organisation that was assisting young women from her community. The organisation sent her back to school to continue with her education and the rest, as they say, is history! Today she works for the United Nations Population Fund, an organisation that works, among other things, to ensure that young people reach their full potential.
As I sat there listening to these conversations I would never have imagined that these well dressed and very successful women had gone through such experiences. I guess it is true that it is our past that makes our future. I love stories, and I enjoy getting to know people as I have grown to understand that there is depth and value in taking time to know people beyond what we perceive.
From these experiences I could see that the launch was an emotionally charged event, as the discussions held resonated and spoke to those present at a personal level. It evoked memories. The videos played of the different health, educational, economic and social struggles young girls are enduring as a result of early and unintended pregnancies across the region led me to the question: “What has changed!”
The year 2019 marks 25 years of commitment to the implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Programme of Action. We also celebrate 50 years of UNFPA delivering rights and choices for all. The ICPD represents a promise made to young people, which had the intention of giving young people hope that their rights and their needs would be met.
These rights include the realisation of the right to education and attainment of a secondary school education; delaying marriage beyond childhood and ensuring free and full choice in marriage-related decisions. These rights also include the right to health, including access to youth friendly health services and counselling; access to health-promoting information, including on sexual and reproductive matters; promotion of gender equitable roles and attitudes and protection from gender-based violence and socialisation in a supportive environment. These are crucial for a successful transition to adulthood with reference to sexual and reproductive health outcomes.
We have reasons to celebrate 25 years since the ICPD conference in 1994 and since UNFPA began its work in Zimbabwe in 1981. We have a net attendance rate of 91 percent for primary education, suggesting that nearly everyone goes to primary school. However, the rate declines sharply for secondary education to 52 percent, with rural secondary education attendance (44 percent) lagging behind the urban attendance of 72 percent by a wide margin.
On access to contraceptives today many more young girls and women have the power to decide when or how often to become pregnant. The use of modern contraceptive methods among currently married women has increased from 42 percent (1994) to 66 percent (2015). Maternal mortality ratio has started to decline from 960 (2010) to 651 (2015). More individuals can exercise their reproductive rights.
However, as we celebrate these achievements, many young people are still having concerns and needs related to sexual and reproductive health; we still have “unfinished business”. According to the National Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Strategy II 2016-2020, the key challenges facing adolescents and young people in Zimbabwe are high rates of unplanned pregnancies, early childbearing, adolescent marriages, gender based violence, high maternal mortality and high rates of new HIV infection. A few statistics below to paint the picture:
Adolescent fertility rate is estimated at 110 live births per 1 000 women aged 15-19 years (ZDHS 2015) up from 99/1000 in 2005/6 meaning approximately one in 10 adolescent girls aged 15-19 give birth every year.
Close to half of teenage girls have begun childbearing by age 19. Unmet need of family planning by women aged 15-19 years is higher (12,6 percent) than the average unmet need (10,4 percent).
Certain groups such as unmarried women and adolescents may still face obstacles in accessing contraceptive information and services, based on the notion that they should not be sexually active.
In this month of August where we commemorate International Youth Day, UNFPA reaffirms its commitments to ensuring rights and choices for all as embodied in the ICPD Programme of Action. This commitment has been by the launch of the strategy on adolescents and youth: “My Body, My Life, My World!”. The strategy underscores the centrality of young people to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals and aligns with the UN Strategy on Youth 2030.
The strategy has three interlinked dimensions of our work with adolescents and youth:
My Body: Ensure access to integrated sexual and reproductive health services and information for all adolescents and youth
My Life: Address determinants of adolescents and youth health and well-being, upholding rights and investing in human capital
My World: Promote adolescents and youth leadership; and their fundamental right to participate in sustainable development, humanitarian action and in sustaining peace.
The 2019 theme for the International Youth Day “Transforming Education” highlights efforts to make education more inclusive and accessible for all youth. The precepts of transformative education resonates with the “My Body, My Life, My World!” strategy as it is a rallying cry for every young person to have the knowledge and power to make informed choices about their bodies and lives, and to participate in transforming their world. Empowering young people to realise their rights, to make informed choices about their own bodies, their own lives and the world they live in is a matter of justice and a driver of a lifetime of returns.
Pennelope Kasere is an Adolescent Sexual Reproductive Health Programme Analyst with the United Nations Population Fund in Zimbabwe. She has a strong passion for young people’s development.