Edna Muchingami* (not real name), is part of the many women in the central business district of Zimbabwe’s capital city Harare- who line the streets during the day and at night selling vegetables to make a living in the difficult economic times that the country is going through.
At the age of twenty, Edna is breastfeeding her eight- month year old son, while the eldest of her children – three-year-old Denzel plays with a cardboard box that she stores some of her merchandise.
At the age of eighteen, Edna says she fell pregnant to her husband who works manual jobs as a brick molder and part-time builder in the low-income residential area of Ushewekunze- south of Harare.
Edna narrates how lack of access to sexual reproductive health services and education has affected not only herself but also many of the country’s adolescent population who have found themselves pregnant at a young age, forcing them into marriage without proper preparation financially, physically and mentally.
A UNFPA,  report on Sexual Reproductive Challenges- Adolescents and Youth, states that 15 – 20-year-old girls constitute an estimated 16 % of the population, thus Sexual Reproductive Health services are essential for them to live healthy and productive lives.
“The country has a high unmet need for family planning, HIV services and education that has led to girls between the ages of 15-20 to experience challenges such as sexual activities without contraception protection. As soon as girls begin to engage in sexual relations there is need for HIV services, sexual reproductive health services and education to be made available,” read the UNFPA report.
Stumbling- blocks towards women emancipation
Zimbabwe’s health sector has been experiencing challenges that have become a burden for many women and adolescent girls. Despite the lack of access to contraceptives, that has triggered early marriages and teenage pregnancies; the failing health department has become a huge cost for many young women, some of whom left stranded giving birth at home enduring risky deliveries with untrained midwives.
The UNFPA , report states that the consequences of health care disruptions resulted in the increase of neonatal mortality, maternal and child health services deterred.
Women’s rights organizations have called on the government to adhere to the Universal Human Rights Declaration on the respect of women’s sexual reproductive health rights and ensure their human dignity.
Lack of access to SRH Rights; A worse form of GBV
Zimbabwe is a member state to the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG 3 and 5 addresses sexual and reproductive health rights, putting pressure on governments and development partners to promote access to sexual reproductive health rights and capacitate young girls to make informed sexual decisions and be able to live productive lives.
“Despite these efforts, the rate of adolescent pregnancy is recorded to be high in Southern Africa- Zimbabwe included,” says Blessing Nyagumbo, UNFPA Program Specialist- Adolescent and Youth.
A World Vision report states that 82 % of young girls in Zimbabwe married during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown. In rural and low-income communities, many young girls out of the protection of schools due to the global pandemic COVID-19, without access to reproductive health education.
The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood Zimbabwe, the country’s health system is failing women as it fails to provide for them and their unborn children.
“The government needs to go into dialogue with the health professionals that will bring the health system back to normal. We the government to resuscitate the health system and support the sexual reproductive health rights that promote a safe environment for pregnant women. It is the responsibility of the government to provide such a service to women,” says, Dr Christina Mudokwenyu- Rawdon, Programs Coordinator, White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood.
Rozaria Memorial Trusts, non-profit organization based in Murehwa that promotes girls empowerment says without sexual reproductive health care services in local clinics, young girls are at risk of adolescent pregnancies.
“Girls as young as thirteen are having sexual relations with men. Without access to SRH in local clinics, unsafe abortion is taking place in rural communities. Access to sexual reproductive health rights such as contraceptives is a necessity for all adolescent girls to protect their health and their lives,” says Hilda Mugaragumbo, Rozaria Memorial Trust and Community Engagement Officer.
Sexual Reproductive Health Rights- a Health Emergency for Zimbabwe’s Adolescents
The country reeling under the effects of the global pandemic Covid-19, access to sexual reproductive health rights and education for young girls has become a forgotten necessity.
UNFPA, Zimbabwe  report says access to sexual and reproductive health services for young people remains critical, especially during a humanitarian crisis such as the global pandemic Covid-19.
“In challenging times, services are disrupted, leaving many young people and women with limited choices. This can have a significant impact on their lives. Before the COVID-19 related lockdowns, many young people were benefitting from free sexual reproductive health services such as family planning and HIV-AIDS testing,” reads the report.
“Access to reproductive health services is a forgotten necessity as a result of the humanitarian crisis that has resulted in young girls facing dangers of teenage pregnancy, unsafe abortion, child-marriage, sexual transmitted diseases and gender-based violence,” Mugaragumbo says.
Magaragumbo says cultural beliefs have also contributed towards endangering the lives of young girls, exposing them to premature sexual relations.
“As a result of cultural beliefs, girls as young as twelve years are initiated into womanhood, trained on how to please their future husbands in the bedroom. Such initiation ceremonies expose the young girls into premature sexual encounters, as they would want to experiment.”
Advocating for better Laws!
Twenty-two year old Samantha Chidodo an aspiring human rights lawyer advocates against child marriage in her rural community of Shamva.
Chidodo was a victim of an arranged marriage at the age of 17.
Now a mother to her four-year-old son, Chidodo escaped the vice of child-marriage, gender based violence and religious practices.
Chidodo says there is need to repeal Zimbabwe’s marriage laws fully implemented to support young women and girls, criminalize and eliminate child marriages.
“Girls should be empowered through education and access to sexual reproductive health care services so that child-marriage can be eliminated,” Samantha says.
Women rights representatives to fast track the passing of the Marriages Bill petitioned parliament of Zimbabwe, to protect young girls from child-marriage.
“Access to sexual reproductive health is a right for women and girls. Religion in most rural communities is the main driver to arranged marriage for girls. Young women and girls have the power to make their own decisions without interference from religious leaders,” Chidodo says.
Traditional leader, Chief Bushu of Ward 11 in Shamva district- an advocate for laws to safeguard girls’ rights in rural communities.
“We have drafted by-laws that criminalize child-marriage, gender based violence. Rural communities have a regard of the traditional laws and we have made efforts to reduce child-marriages. There is need for a comprehensive approach on sexual reproductive health education that should be inclusive of church leaders, traditional leaders, health and education professionals so that we speak with one voice adapting the law that supports the rights of girls and women,” Chief Bushu says.