By MOSES CHIMFWEMBE –
Zambia has set 16 years as the legal age of consent to sexual intercourse, but the country continues to record significant numbers of teenage pregnancies involving adolescents younger than 16.
This has led to most of the young people involved to drop out of school and some have fallen prey to early marriages.
Regardless of this fact, the question of whether adolescents should have access to contraceptives in Zambia remains a contentious issue which attracts raging debate from a cross section of society.
In practice, parental consent in Zambia is required for adolescents under the age of 16 years to access contraceptives.
However, the law does not place any age restriction on young people’s access to contraception, including emergency ones.
The Penal Code Chapter 87 of the Laws of Zambia (the Penal Code) Section 131(A) defines a child as a person below the age of 16 years, thereby presumed incapable of engaging in sexual intercourse.
But according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) report of 2014, girls in sub-Sahara Africa experience their sexual debut at the age of 14 years.
Four years ago, the story of a 10-year-old girl with a six month pregnancy in Ndola’s Kaloko Township shocked and broken many hearts.
In 2016, 16000 adolescent girls dropped out of school as a result of unwanted pregnancies, and more of such cases are still being recorded.
For 15-year-old Martha (real name withheld), a Grade Five pupil at Hands of Compassion community school in Ndola’s Mapalo Township, the use of contraceptives was the only way she could have prevented unwanted pregnancy as she is sexually active. Despite having knowledge about various methods of modern contraceptives, she could not access any of the commodities owing to her age.
Martha is four months pregnant.
“I went to the clinic to ask for contraceptives before I got pregnant, but unfortunately, I was just counseled and told that I needed parental consent to access family planning services because I am still young,” Martha said.
She is one of the five 15-year-old teenage girls at the same school who are expecting their first babies.
During a provincial youth dialogue meeting for the Copperbelt province held in Ndola recently to highlight adolescent sexual and reproductive health rights, young people voiced out their concerns on the need for relevant authorities to put in place measures that will ease access to contraceptives for those below 16.
“There is need for the law that will remove limit on adolescents as young as 13 years to access sexual and reproductive health facilities,” said Jane (not real name), a 14-year-old pupil.
Despite the rising demand of modern contraceptives among adolescents younger than 16, access to the services without parental consent remains a challenge.
Senior Nursing Officer-in-charge of adolescent health in Ndola, Elizabeth Ng’ambi, admitted that service providers are faced with a decision making dilemma when teenagers below the age of 16 years walk in health facilities to seek contraceptives.
“We have situations where young girls who are below the age of 16 come to seek contraceptives.
“These are girls who are sexually active and they say they want to protect themselves from STIs and early pregnancy because they have boyfriends,” Ms Ng’ambi said.
She said at the same time, the service providers know that if this service is not offered, they will probably be exposing such girls to pregnancy, but then the girls need consent from parents.
“It is very difficult for us as health workers because we are in between a parent and a child,” she said.
If an adolescent child below 16 years has an STI, they are treated without parental consent but in the case of HIV testing, parental consent is required except in the case of married, pregnant or parent-children.
Although the age of consent objective is good in ensuring that a child has the support of a parent when seeking medication, there is need to address inconsistencies in this law.
Chiengi Member of Parliament Given Katuta said there is lack of clarity in the law on the age of consent and that it is incumbent upon parliamentarians to correct the ambiguity.
“The onus is on us as lawmakers to ensure that such discrepancies in the law are corrected.”
“Our children are having their sexual debut earlier than the age of 16 years and we cannot pay a blind eye to this; we need to act swiftly and deal with this law to curb teenage pregnancies,” she said.
However, Zambia has taken various steps in ensuring access to modern contraceptives for all adolescents.
The Zambia Family Planning Guidelines and Protocols of 2006 facilitate access, especially for young girls, to all types of services dealing with reproductive health concerns, and specifically family planning without consent of spouse, parents, guardians or relatives as provided for by current legislation while the Integrated Family Planning Scale-up Plan 2013-2020 aims at effectively targeting and serving adolescents and youth with quality accessible sexual and reproductive health information and services in and out of school.
Other policy documents include the Adolescent Health Strategy 2017-2021 which focuses on increasing adolescents’ access to and utilization of quality healthcare, leading to improved sexual and reproductive health and the National HIV/AIDS/STI/TB Policy of 2005 seeks to make condoms and other barrier methods available, accessible and affordable to all sexually active individuals throughout the country.
Zambia has also ratified the protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa which guarantees women and girls’ right to health, including sexual and reproductive health.
Furthermore, the country has committed to achieving Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), some of which are directly connected to sexual and reproductive health rights.
In line with the third, fourth and fifth SDGs, Zambia is obliged to ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being for all at all ages, ensure quality education and promote gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls.