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Investing in youth’s comprehensive sexuality

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Many adolescents, especially girls are contracting sexually transmitted infections, falling pregnant and procuring unsafe abortions due to lack of knowledge on sexual reproductive health (SRH) and comprehensive sexuality issues. JOSEPHINE CHINELE explores problems that communication barriers to SRH issues are bringing to young people.

Just as issues of sex and sexuality are a taboo to be discussed openly, it is more than an offence for a teenager to have all the details about their own sexuality.

Most youths in the country have sketchy information about sex and comprehensive sexuality—an approach to sexuality education that encompasses the full range of information, skills and values to enable young people to exercise their sexual and reproductive rights and to make decisions about their health and sexuality.

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It is offensive for parents to talk about sex even when a child has many questions; rather the issue is pushed to aunties, uncles and grannies to talk about it. Even them, they are not as explicit choosing to be abstract while keeping vital information to themselves.

It is such cultures that landed 15 year old Luwi (real name withheld) in unwanted pregnancy distress. When she had her first menstruation period, her aunt just told her to avoid men because they will impregnate her but no further details were given. Luwi did not know how that works.

“My boyfriend persuaded me that having sex only once would not lead to pregnancy,” she recalls.

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Luwi faced rejection from her parents after this pregnancy. They said she brought shame to the family.

She was sent to live with her grandparents in the village but it was not clear as regards to when she will return.

“I knew I made a mistake but I felt I needed my mother ’s support especially this time, but she was nowhere near me. My grandmother was very old to take care of me,” Luwi laments.

She did not know how a pregnancy works; she could not understand her body anymore. She was also not sure about her relationship with her parents and education.

It appears everyone judged her as a reckless girl and the only thing she could do to help herself was to terminate the three months old pregnancy she was carrying.

Friends and some ‘well-wishers’ tried to convince her to procure abortion.

“This was the most painful experience ever. I don’t know what happened next but I just realised that I was lying on a hospital bed, my mother was on my side,” recalls Luwi.

She had procured unsafe abortion and lost a lot of blood in the process.

Luwi is one of the 106,000 of teen aged girls (15-24 years) who get unwanted pregnancies yearly in Malawi.

Ministry of Health statistics indicate that 24.4 abortions are done per 1,000 women of reproductive age (15–49 years) which translates to 70,000 unsafe abortions per year.

MoH also says 25 percent of these are below 25 years, 7.4 percent abortions are done among adolescents aged 12–17 years like Luwi.

The Malawi Demographic Health Survey (MDHS-2010) data says 22 and 14 percent of boys and girls respectively have had sex by the age of 15. It is therefore not surprising that at 15 years old, Luwi fell pregnant.

About 20 and 5.3 percent of boys and girls respectively have had consensual sex by age 10.

But parents do not want to accept the fact that their children are having sex and they need to have safer sex and access to contraceptives.

In 2013 alone, 34,000 new HIV infections were recorded among the youth and 7,400 among them being children less than 14 years old.

Executive Director for Youth Activists Initiative Organisation, Tony Khanyepa says if the attitudes and practices over the youth’s sexual reproductive health do not change, the youth will still be at risk of STIs, HIV and pregnancies.

“Most adolescents get misleading information from friends hence this problem of early pregnancies and lots of diseases,” he stresses.

Khanyepa observes that this generation is different from the one before in the sense that the current one does not believe in abstinence that is why there is need for sexuality and sexual reproductive health issues knowledge.

“Even when the youths go to the hospital, most health workers want to play the role of a parent other than that of a service provider. The youths are judged and this discourages them from going to the hospital to seek help,” he notes.

United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) leaflet on young people says less than 40 percent of young people have adequate knowledge on preventing HIV.

It points out that across eastern and southern Africa; lack of knowledge also contributes to high rates of unintended pregnancy, sexual abuse and to HIV and other STIs.

“Parents and caregivers who can be open about these issues with their children make a difference. The information young people receive is often surrounded by taboos and misinformation,” reads the information in part.

I t adds: “Getting involved as parents helps ensure the right information is shared at the right time in the right way as a young person grows up. Parents need to ensure there is an open, give and take conversation about sexuality a normal part of family life.”

Traditional Authority Chowe of Mangochi says it is against the country’s culture for parents to talk about comprehensive sexuality with their children.

“Much as we can alert our children that there are pregnancies and diseases out there, we have limits. It’s a taboo. This is better said by an aunt or uncle or they should learn at school,” he says.

The TA stresses that it is not right for the youth for the youth to be told about modern contraceptives including condoms because this is like asking them to become promiscuous.

“During our time, we used the same method and there were no such issues. The youth abstained from sex till they get married,” he noted.

There is need for more consideration after all to consider finding a better way to invest in young people’s comprehensive sexuality.

Facts about young people

  • 19.8 per cent of females and 34.7 per cent of males between 13 to 17 years old reported having sex
  • Less than half (40%) of sexually active 15-19 year old boys are using condoms
  • Less than 30 per cent of unmarried, and one-quarter (25%) of married girls 15 -19 years old girls use modern contraception
  • 1 in 5 (20%) of sexually active 15 – 19 year old boys and girls use condoms consistently
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