Girls under the age of 16 cannot be given contraceptives as they cannot legally consent to legal sexual activity and if they required emergency contraceptive treatment this would require parental consent as would any medical treatment, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga told that National Assembly last week.
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Speaking as Minister of Health and Child Care, he rejected a proposal in a report tabled by the portfolio committee on Health and Child Care that parental consent should no longer be sought when a child wanted to access medical treatment, including contraceptives.
The committee, chaired by Proportional Representative MP Dr Ruth Labode, had called for the removal of age restrictions on access to reproductive health services like the requirement of consent from a guardian for a child to receive medical treatment.
VP Chiwenga said while Zimbabwe did not have legislation specifying at what age parental consent was no longer required to receive medical treatment, the common practice was that parental consent was required to provide medical treatment to a child under 16 years.
“Since a child under the age of 16 years cannot consent to sexual intercourse in practice, it is presumed that a child under the age of 16 years does not need contraceptives.
“Emergency contraceptives would be considered a form of medical treatment and therefore, individuals aged under 16 would require parental consent to access them in practice,” said VP Chiwenga.
He also gave health implications of initiating young girls on contraceptives. “Anatomy of teenagers is not fully developed to be able to carry the pregnancy and its complications which include obstructed labour, obstetric fistulas, symphysis pubis diastasis and ultimately maternal death. Early sexual debut increases risk of these adolescents to cervical cancer, sexually transmitted infections including HIV Chlamydia and gonorrhoea which have adverse effects on future fertility. Methods of contraception are not 100 percent effective therefore these adolescents remain at a higher risk of complications in case of unwanted pregnancies.”
VP Chiwenga said entrapping the girl-child in child bearing had the effect of creating a vicious cycle of poverty.
“If age restriction for accessing reproductive healthcare services is removed, the interpretation is that, a person who can decide when to use contraceptives also has power as to decide when they can indulge in sexual activity and also as when they want to have a baby. This will be a time bomb for immorality against the diverse cultural and religious communities in Zimbabwe and a high potential of increased burden on Government’s social security nets, where high numbers of children will be having children out of wedlock,” said VP Chiwenga.
He said there was need to align the statutory criminal law with the Constitution, and align any variations in the range of laws with the Constitution, which basically sets this age at 18 years when a Zimbabwean becomes a full legal adult.
VP Chiwenga said there were numerous challenges posed by the various statutory clauses regarding age of consent as they were at variance with the Constitution which set the age of 18 years when a Zimbabwean can marry. He said age of consent to sexual activity is set at 16 years for both boys and girls who are unmarried while the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act currently provides that the age of consent to sexual activity for married couples is 12 years.
“The Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act also limited the offence of “sexual intercourse with young persons” to where the perpetrator has “extra marital sexual intercourse” with a young person. This poses challenges as it linked sexual activity with marriage, said VP Chiwenga.
On HIV testing and accessing results, VP Chiwenga said children under 16 may consent to it if they are married, pregnant or a parent, or they can demonstrate that they are mature enough to make a decision on their own.
“In addition, if a parent or care-giver cannot or will not give consent for a child under 16 years, the attending health worker can seek approval from hospital authorities or the Minister to give treatment without parental consent if it is in the best interest of the child. The requirement to “demonstrate that they are mature enough to make the decision on their own” raises challenges as the term was vague,” said VP Chiwenga.