OP-ED - Zimbabwe: Confusion around age of consent has devastating effects for children’s sexual and reproductive health

By Louise Carmody, Thematic Researcher at Amnesty International

Tendai* waited until she was eight months pregnant before she made her first visit to a clinic for antenatal care. At the time, she was 17 years old. Although she had had sexual relationships since the age of 15, she had been afraid to visit a government health facility for information or contraception services before then. When I asked her why she was afraid, she replied: “I was scared [to go] because I was young…I was scared of the law, because it says you have to be 18 before you can be sexually active.”

Although she had had sexual relationships since the age of 15, she had been afraid to visit a government health facility for information or contraception services before then.
Louise Carmody, Thematic Researcher at Amnesty International

In fact, under Zimbabwean law the age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16. However, a 2016 ruling by Zimbabwe’s constitutional court ordering the government to raise the legal age of marriage to 18, has contributed to the confusion around the age of consent.

Rather than taking action to protect children’s rights, politicians have become entangled in a web of confusion around whether changing marriage laws also requires raising the age of consent to sex from 16, and what the age of consent means in terms of accessing reproductive health services.

Tendai was one of 50 adolescents who spoke to Amnesty International in its 2018 report highlighting gaps in people’s knowledge of their reproductive and sexual health rights. Like Tendai, many adolescent girls whom we spoke to, told us that they were chased from clinics for being too young, despite their need for sexual and reproductive health services and advice, sometimes as the victims of sexual exploitation. One of the girls explained, “[you] can’t go to the clinic if you are under 16; they will chase you away and insult you.”

Other members of the community, including teachers, parents, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community health workers who spoke to Amnesty International were also confused about the age at which adolescents can access sexual and reproductive health services without parental consent. They highlighted the stigma of pre-marital sex. Many felt that allowing adolescents to access such services and information was akin to their condoning sexual activity, which was taboo. But this reasoning ignores realities.

Adolescents in Zimbabwe didn’t know how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.
Louise Carmody

Many adolescents are sexually active from an early age and adolescent pregnancy rates are rising.

Zimbabwe’s demographic health data indicates that nearly 40% of girls and 24% of boys are sexually active before they reach the age of 18. Some may be freely choosing to engage in sexual activity with each other, while many others are victims of child marriage, sexual violence or exploitation.

Entrenched taboos

Amnesty’s study found adolescents in Zimbabwe didn’t know how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Entrenched taboos around adolescent sexuality, barriers to health services and a failure to provide comprehensive sexual education in schools keep adolescents dangerously cut off from information that is vital to protect their well-being and futures. Girls who became pregnant also faced human rights violations. Some were pressured to drop out of school or forced into an early marriage. Others were ostracised by their communities and shunned by their families.

Kudzai’s* boyfriend raped her when she was 16. It was the first time she had sex. On disclosing her pregnancy, Kudzai’s mother shouted at her and beat her. Kudzai did not tell anyone what happened and was still traumatised when she spoke to us. Unfortunately, her experience is all too common. According to the government’s recent data, more than half of all adolescent girls said that their first sexual experience consisted of being forced to have sex against their will.

Whatever their circumstance, adolescents have the right to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. But the government has failed to protect and empower them.

Lawmakers could take guidance from African human rights experts. In their recommendations to governments around ending child marriage, the Commission on Human and People’s Rights and the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, are clear that children do not have capacity to consent to marriage. Both panels stress that 18 years is the minimum age for marriage without exception. They explain that child marriage can never be in the best interests of a child, especially when used to “remedy” the “dishonour” of pre-marital sex, pregnancy and poverty. In contrast, the experts advise children may have capacity to consent to sex from a younger age and emphasise the importance of protecting access to sexual and reproductive health services and information for adolescents.

It is therefore worrying that in 2018, the Zimbabwean government passed the Public Health Amendment Act which sets 18 as the age of consent to medical treatment.

Far from encouraging young people to become sexually active at an early age, studies have shown that providing adolescents with scientifically accurate, realistic, non-judgmental information about sex, consent and relationships reduces unintended pregnancy, abuse and gender-based violence.

The age of consent for sexual activity and the minimum age of marriage should not be a barrier to accessing sexual and reproductive health information, education and services.
Louise Carmody

The age of consent for sexual activity and the minimum age of marriage should not be a barrier to accessing sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. As one teenage parent, aged 17, pleaded with us: “It is high time that people accept that our children are getting involved [in sex] at a tender age so they have to accept and to teach us. It is a subject that is being taken for granted and it is affecting us a lot.”

 *Names have been changed to protect identities

This op-ed appeared in the print edition of the Zimbabwe Independent of 22 March 2019.

Louise Carmody is a thematic researcher at Amnesty International. She works on sexual reproductive rights.