Lack of sex education in rural schools fuelling child marriages

A young girl stands amid a herd of cattle in Maserukwe village located in Gokwe North district of the Midlands province. Cattle carry significant social, economic, and cultural importance for people in Zimbabwe, who use cows for marriage rites. Martha Mangove (not her real name) dropped out from Nembudziya High School located at Mtora Growth point, last year. She was 15. It was after having been drawn into an early marriage. The development dashed all her hopes of becoming a career woman and now she has to adapt to a life in which she lives as a young mother of a fully-fledged family.

No sex education in Gokwe schools

No sex education in Gokwe schools

With tears dripping on her face, she concedes that lack of sex education at her former school was one of the biggest causes of her predicament. Sex education is a broad programme that covers issues relating to sex and sexuality including age of consent, sexual abstinence, reproductive health rights, sexual reproduction and birth control among other aspects.

“At our school we never went through lessons on sex education. In fact in this rural part of the country, there are no schools which have sex education programmes. The main reason is that authorities and even our parents take such things as taboo and unacceptable. They think if we are to go through such lessons, we will in fact be motivated to indulge in sex,” she said.

At her tender age, Mangove has an uphill task to present herself as a normal and grown up married housewife. However, that has not been easy and she regrets the day she entered into the early marriage.

“I have faced a lot of problems in this marriage. I am young and do not know how to exactly be a wife. When I was pregnant, I had to look after my husband, do housework, deal with in-laws, and work on the farm.  I had to do all this and deal with a pregnancy while I was just a child myself,” she said.

Like several other girls who marry young, Mangove has been denied a range of human rights. She had to discontinue her education, faces serious health risks from early and multiple pregnancies, and suffers sexual and domestic violence.

However, her testimony by and large justifies the need to introduce sex education in rural schools as a way of reducing cases of child marriages. Lack of such education is proving to be one of the drivers fuelling the scourge. While most of the urban based high schools have introduced lessons in sex education, the rural ones are evidently lagging behind.

Studies show that young people in Zimbabwe who receive age-appropriate information imparted by trained teachers are less likely to prematurely become sexually active and would therefore be spared from early marriages. Sex education in schools therefore goes a long way in helping the adolescent girl child to take charge of her future. Due to lack of sex education in rural schools, there are very high chances that the girls resort to misleading peer-to-peer education, learning half-truths, speculations and incorrect information that all lead to misinformed decisions like venturing into premature sex.

Agenda 2063, the African Union’s development plan, recognizes that child marriage is a major impediment to regional development and prosperity. Countries lose out on potentially enormous social, economic, and political contributions these girls could make if given the right opportunities from the start.

Zimbabwe joined the AU Campaign to end child marriages in mid-2015. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development with support from UNICEF, UNWOMEN, UNFPA, the Child Rights and Women’s Rights Coalitions has been working on a National Action Plan to End Child Marriages and its related communication for development activities. The Constitutional Court ruling of January 2016 has been an impetus to move the agenda forward.   All these efforts are part of the global campaign to end child marriages.

There are already worrying records of child marriages in Zimbabwe which the campaign seeks to roll back. The country is among African nations with high prevalence rates of child marriages at 31 percent. A survey by ZIMSTAT, the national statistical agency, indicates that one in three women aged 20 to 49 interviewed reported that they married before age 18. An estimated four percent married before the age of 15, the survey found.

Former UNICEF Representative, Reza Hossaini is on record saying sexual health and reproductive information is key in the lives of young people.

“Contrary to common belief, providing comprehensive sex education to young people does not encourage them to be sexually active. In other words, giving children and young people the opportunity to receive correct information, learn how to live by their values, and acquire relationship skills will enable them to make the rights choices and become responsible and respectful adults,” he says.

“When age-appropriate information is shared by trained teachers, young people are more likely to delay their sexual debut, reduce the frequency of sexual activity, and the number of sexual partners,” he says.

In 2013, Lazarus Dokora, the minister of Primary and Secondary Education pledged to develop a strategic plan to end child marriages. However, the pace of formulating the policy has been slow raising calls for the ministry to expedite the process.

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