ZOE Nakamba is a 16-year-old who completed her high school education in 2013.
She is one of the estimated 138 million young people in Eastern and Southern African (ESA) region, who make up about 32 per cent of the total population in the region.
Despite Zambia having the fifth highest adolescent birth rate in the Sub-Saharan Africa, young Zeo is one of the girls that have sailed through her education without falling prey to the increased number of teenage pregnancies recorded in the recent past.
According to the 2010 Census report, the adolescent birth rate in Zambia stands at 146 births per 1000 women aged between 15 to 49 years.
In this region, girls are more likely than boys to drop out of school, and 30 per cent of them make the transition to secondary school, with even fewer of them completing their education.
By the age of 17 years, it is estimated that one in every five girls would have already begun child bearing.
In Zambia, Kaoma High School recently recorded 30 girls going on maternity leave owing to the increase in the spate of increase early pregnancies.
Kaoma District as a school recorded a 61 per cent school drop-out rate for 2013, but this is not unique to Kaoma alone.
Countrywide, figures show that 17,600 pupils became pregnant in 2012 and only 6,000 of these went back to school under the Government’s re-entry programme. During a recently held UNESCO Inception meeting in Lusaka, Hillside Girls High School of Chipata headteacher Christine Sinyangwe disclosed that the school recorded 69 cases of school girls falling pregnant in 2011, which necessitated sensitisation awareness programmes by some civil society organisations.
“When the NGO came in to help sensitise the girls, the following year, the cases of pregnancies dropped to 15. However, in 2013, the number increased to 25, and just in the first term of 2014, the school has recorded 19 cases of pregnancies,’’ she explained.
Ms Sinyangwe is, however, hopeful that efforts to scale-up comprehensive sexual education (CSE) in schools by UNESCO will go a long way in addressing the high numbers of school drop-out rates due to pregnancies.
In her view, the lack of knowledge on CSE is what has contributed to the high numbers of pregnancies in schools.
Because of these concerns, Zoe stressed the need for young people’s sexuality needs to be taken on board if the numbers of pregnancies in schools is to reduce.
She is of the view that strengthened CSE in the school curriculum which should be spear-headed by guidance and counselling teachers, and youth friendly health services in order to realise the intended results.
“Our expectations as young people is we want to see CSE be a stand alone subject, we do not want it incorporated in other subjects in the school curricula,” Zoe stressed.
She believes that when CSE is incorporated in other subjects, it does not get the desired attention it deserves.
“It is easier to build strong children than repair broken fences, she said”
She also attests to the need for the establishment of youth friendly services to provide SRH services to adolescents and young people, because the conventional health centres do not adequately meet the needs of the young people.
“When we go to the hospital and ask certain questions about SRH and we are looked at like we are crazy, or trying to live beyond our age, they do not entertain questions relating to contraception or condom use because both health workers and society deems it a taboo,” she explained.
It is even more challenging for younger women to gain access to contraceptives at health facilities, that for those who are over 24 years.
Her concerns have been supported by Kamwala High School grade ten pupil Clive Nyirenda who says the incorporation of CSE in regular school subjects such as biology has not paid off because girls have continued to fall pregnant.
The right to health services, is among other rights enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights o of the Child, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which protect the children from sexual exploitation and abuse, and recognises the child’s rights to clothing shelter, food, education and health needs.
However, many young people in school have faced challenges in accessing health services pertaining to sexual reproductive health (SRH).
Clive also called for interventions aimed at curbing teenage pregnancies to employ a holistic approach which should include children out-side the school environment.
Education has been recognised as an important protective factor against HIV and other health risks such as early pregnancy.
In particular, comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) plays a major role in sensitizing adolescents on their sexuality needs.
Contrary to widely held perceptions, CSE does not lead to early sexual debut among young people, in fact, it helps to delay it.
UNESCO regional HIV and AIDS advisor Patricia Machawira explained that UNESCO has been working on programmes aimed at bringing together the ministries of health and educations to address issues of young people’s sexuality needs jointly, since 2011.
She explained that because of the gaps in addressing the sexuality needs of young people and adolescents, an inter-ministerial committee for the ESA region was developed in order to achieve strengthened efforts for positive out-comes for CSE in the region.
This is against the back-ground that an estimated 620,000 new infections amongst young people per year in this region, out of which 60 per cent of these new infections occur among young women aged between 15 to 24 years.
Dr Machawira explained that the onset of puberty brings about new developments such as romantic attractions between opposite those of the opposite sexes, with some of them even sparking off sexual relations.
She said the inclusion of CSE into the school curricula is supported by 60 per cent f adults in the region who agree that adolescents aged between 12 to 14 years should be taught about condom use in schools.
But education alone is not sufficient, it needs to be supported by SRH services that are safe, confidential, welcoming and easily accessible and affordable to young people.
“These services include contraceptives and condoms, voluntary male medical circumcision, pre and post natal services, safe abortions, HIV testing, HIV and STI treatment and care, and the prevention of mother to child transmission,” Dr Machawira noted.
Ministry of Education national HIV and AIDS coordinator Remmy Mukonka in his presentation at the Inception meeting explained that because Zambia is a signatory to international instruments like the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the country is obliged to protect the interests of the young people.
Mr Mukonka said a 2011 desk review survey reveals that pregnancies can begin as early as grade one especially in rural areas, where learners begin school at the age of 10 and 12 years, with grades seven and nine accounting for the peak of adolescent pregnancies.
He said basic schools account for the highest numbers of pregnancies, with a very low turn -out on the school re-entry policy for pregnant girls.
Some of the measures employed by the Ministry of Education to address these challenges include the revision of the school curriculum in 2013 to include CSE beginning at grade five to grade 12.
However, there is still need for government to narrow the gap that exists between teachers and learners, as well as strengthen linkages by establishing youth friendly corners where young people can access SRH services including condom use.
It remains to be seen if the concerns raised by young people will be taken on board in order to achieve desired SRH out-comes for young people.