NOMSA NKANA, Chongwe
SEXUAL reproductive health rights (SRHR) services and information are critical to the protection of adolescent girls and young women from child marriages, early pregnancies and contracting of sexually transmitted infections such as HIV. Young women in urban areas have benefited from SRHR information which is disseminated by various organisations through safe spaces. However, females in rural communities are still unaware that these services and information are available. One case in point is that of 17-year-old Marjorie Mashiki, a Grade Nine pupil of Monze, who was forced to drop out of school in 2021 due to pregnancy. Mashiki said her classmate, who was her boyfriend, would lure her into having sexual relations with him by giving her money. She always had unprotected sex with the young man because she trusted him when he would tell her she wouldn’t fall pregnant. “If I had information on SRHR, I would have known better how to protect myself with family planning or totally abstain,” Mashiki said. During a recently held Adolescent Symposium in Chongwe by Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia (FAWEZA), under its Break Free programme, a trained teacher-mentor of Chifusa Primary and Secondary School, Mwiza Wambuzi, said SRHR services and information are necessary for adolescents and young women to enable them to make right decisions about their sexuality. The Break Free programme, which empowers adolescents and young people to make their own free and informed choices, speak out and have control over their SRH and lives, attracted females from 15 schools where the project operates from. Among them were young mothers who have re-entered school. Ms Wambuzi explained that it is a challenge to convince young mothers and child wives to go back to school. This is because when the girls become pregnant or get into a child marriage, they think that is the end of their education, while others settle into a life of babysitting or marriage. Therefore, the teacher-mentors under the Break Free programme engage community action groups to sensitise households on SRHR information, which has helped to take the adolescents back to school. Ms Wambuzi has observed that most females who have children, whether married or not, fail to get back to school as they have no one to leave their babies with. For those that manage to get back to school, their performance in class is poor as their mental focus is disturbed by various challenges. “Their bodies can be in class but their thoughts are elsewhere. The adolescents that have children are usually not supported by the men who impregnated them, including their own parents. So while in class, the girls will be thinking of where to get support for their children. Such worries distract them from concentrating on their lessons,” she said. The situation makes them become vulnerable to get into relationships with men just for financial and material support. Ms Wambuzi is, however, glad that the Break Free programme is directly supporting the girls by providing them with SRHR information through Student Alliance for Equity (SAFE) spaces, and also supplying them with pads, school uniforms, shoes, books and other necessities. Break Free Zambia country coordinator Wilbroad Kampolwa said Break Free is a consortium of Plan International, FAWE and SRH Africa Trust funded by the Netherlands government through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mr Kampolwa said the reason for the symposium was to motivate the girls and to also mentor them in life skills such as assertiveness for them to exhibit self-confidence in their communities. The meeting was also held to teach the young females to exercise their rights in society when it comes to SRH matters. He said the meeting was also an exercise to hear from them what they feel is a barrier to accessing SRHR information and services. Mr Kampolwa said the adolescents cited some hindrances such as bad attitude by SRHR service providers which result in the young women shunning the places. The young females also said lack of information and knowledge of SRHR information among traditional leaders and parents is a limitation. Additionally, lack of parent-child dialogue on sexuality is a barrier to accessing SRHR information as it is still considered a taboo in some communities. Albeit, some positives were highlighted by the females who said ever since the introduction of the Break Free programme, some changes have been noticed in the way parents and traditional leaders now treat them. Moreover, in schools, Break Free has facilitated teacher-mentor groups where the young people are linked to out-of-school peer educators who are working as coaches. Mr Kampolwa said the programme is also using sport as a nexus for social transformation, particularly dissecting negative socio-cultural norms that contribute towards barriers to accessing SRH. “One of the positives of the Break Free programme is the school re-entry policy, which has worked well. As you can see, the girls who have come here are with their children. “This exemplifies what we stand for as Break Free; having girls going back to school and also having them realise the importance of education, including the policies that the Government has put in place which are able to help them claim for those rights,” he said. FAWEZA executive director Costern Kanjele said the Break Free programme is being implemented in Zambia to address child marriages and teenage pregnancies. Mr Kanjele said statistics indicate that 31 percent of young people aged between 20 and 25 got married before the age of 18, and in terms of teenage pregnancies, the country annually loses about 15,000 girls from the education system at primary and secondary levels. He said, therefore, that the Break Free programme is employing a methodology that has three E’s: Education, Entertainment and Entrepreneurship for advocacy to keep the girls in school. “In education, we want girls to access education services, to remain in school and also perform well in school. For entertainment, we believe that learning should be fun, so we have incorporated activities such as football, netball and others so that it is not just learning but making it fun. “In as far as entrepreneurship is concerned, we are aware that poverty is affecting education of the girl child in the sense that low-income families are not able to send their children to school due to costs of education which FAWEZA is meeting through the project,” Mr Kanjele said. He said to deliver this project, FAWEZA has formed various structures in the 15 schools it is serving in Kalomo, Kazungula and Monze. The project has trained 30 teacher-mentors to implement the activities FAWEZA has put together. Apart from training teacher-mentors, FAWEZA has formed Safe spaces where adolescents and young women discuss SRHR issues. Mr Kanjele believes that the young females should have skills and be assertive to say no when they mean no, and that they should also be able to identify when gender-based violence is about to happen. He said if GBV does happen, the women should have information where they can go to access health services. Programmes such as Break Free deserve to be supported as they are empowering young women with SRHR information to protect them from vices that have the potential to destroy their future.
(Story courtesy of ARASA)