By MIRIAM ZIMBA –
CHARITY Chisanga is a Zambian youth currently grappling with the many pressures of being a teenage which include making informed sexual reproductive health choices that many of her peers also encounter.
Some of the greatest battles that young people struggle with are that of access to user friendly information on matters relating to their sexual reproductive health (SRH) rights.
“We thus attempt to answer our questions on our sexuality through trial and error, through friends and social media, and often times, these sources tend to give incorrect information”, she explained.
“Because of incorrect and inadequate or indeed due to superficial information on our sexuality and our sexual rights, most of us have either fallen pregnant, dropped out of school, contracted Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), sexually abused, infected with HIV and unfortunately a significant number of our friends have died,” Charity added.
Despite the fact that young people have sexual and reproductive health needs and rights, society often does not recognise these rights and often perceives young people as being too young to have sexual reproductive health needs at all.
This is because society believes that young people should instead abstain from sex until later on life to prevent contracting STI’s, HIV and getting pregnant.
Although this may be true, but the reality is that while some young people are abstaining, some of them may not do so.
“Well, I can tell you that ignoring the sexual and reproductive health needs and rights of young people will not stop them from having sex or even prevent early pregnancies, neither will it stop them from continuing to be part of the high HIV infection statistics,” she stressed.
The rights of the young people are sometimes violated through vices such as defilement and sexual abuse, by the same adults who are supposed to protect their interests.
Young people are often victims of lack of adequate HIV knowledge as well as conflicting messages, and discriminatory policies that define who can and cannot access SRH services.
What makes it more complex is that when it comes to the use of protection for those who are already sexually active, they are often expected to get parental consent in order to access these services. But somehow that becomes a barrier to their accessibility to such vital services.
But then, the question remains, what is a young person expected to do in this situation?
In trying to address some of these concerns raised by young people, the Zambian government, in collaboration with the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) recently launched the Regional Report on Comprehensive Sexuality Education and SRH services in Lusaka.
Speaking at this occasion, Education Minister John Phiri said often young people are particularly susceptible to HIV infection and they carry the burden of caring for family members living with HIV and AIDS.
Dr Phiri believes that when young people’s sexual reproductive health needs are addressed through comprehensive sexuality in education, this fosters behaviour change interventions.
This in turn promotes actions such as abstinence or delaying the on-set of first sexual intercourse, reducing the number of sexual partners and living positively with dignity for those that are already infected with HIV.
He pledged government’s commitment to strengthening the capacity of teachers to effectively deliver sexuality education at classroom level.
“The development of age-appropriate materials on sexuality education for learners especially now that my ministry has finalised the comprehensive sexuality education curriculum for learners,” he reiterated.
Dr Phiri called for the discarding of cultural inhibitions that prevent the provision of life-saving knowledge and information to young people.
His counterpart from the Ministry of Community Development, Mother and Child Health Joseph Katema noted that despite seemingly effective HIV prevention interventions, adolescents and youths still face significant barriers in accessing these interventions.
He called for the need to further develop strategies that could address some of the challenges.
“We must develop effective strategies to surmount a number of challenges we are facing which include high levels of HIV prevalence, early sexual debut, teenage and unwanted pregnancies, sexual and gender based violence,” Dr Katema elaborated.
UNAIDS country coordinator Helen Frary called for the need to ensure that young people access appropriate information to enable them benefit from youth-friendly health services.
“In a country such as Zambia where three young people contract HIV every hour, we must commit today for an approach that delivers real support and change,” Ms Frary explained.
The ESA commitment, which was initiated in 2011, has a commitment aimed at reducing HIV infections and improving sexual health outcomes for young people in the 21 countries in the ESA region.
“When we consider that most young people complete less than six and half years of education it is clear that they are not getting the opportunity to develop the cognitive and other skills required for successful transition into adulthood,” Ms Frary added.
She pledged her organisation’s commitment to ensure that voices of young people do not go unheard, and that her organisation will work closely with young people, parents and communities to ensure that leaders place young people’s well-being at the centre of the national agenda.
However, despite important gains, a new UN report on challenges facing adolescents on health and education still has some grey areas.
This is because young people still have access to critical health services including HIV and pregnancy prevention services.
Even where these services may exist, education and health programmes to promote sexual education and reproductive health are not fully resourced or scaled-up.
Cultural traditions and practices sometimes act as barriers rather than protecting the health and future of young people, as well as health services are often withheld from young people because of their age, marital or legal status.
In the ESA region alone, it has been established that approximately 430,000 new HIV infections are recorded annually among young people aged between 15 to 24 years, most of these being young women.
By the age of 17, about one in every five young women in six countries in the region would have began child bearing, which poses a significant risk to their health, with about 2.6 million people living with HIV in the region.
Young people themselves are agitating for re-invigorated response to their needs as exemplified by the Call to Action at the 2011 Global Youth Conference, which emphasised the need for improved access to good quality sexual and reproductive health services and comprehensive sexuality education.
Governments are renowned for promising the provision of better health to citizens and young people.
The young people also want to see training of teachers, parents, guardians, and traditional leaders, policy makers to allow them to make informed choices towards their sexuality challenges, needs and desires.
Because young people aged between 10 and 24 years constitute 4.5 million of the country’s population, and significantly contribute to the proportion of sexually and economically active population hence their needs should take centre stage in the country’s development agenda.