Why we fight for the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and young women
A tenacious female lawyer, a formidable female leader in the industry, an accomplished female doctor, a fearless female advocate. These are the kind of narratives that ought to become reality across Zimbabwe and Africa as a whole. However, young women are unable to access opportunities which enable them to become leaders in their spaces. Access to education is critical in addressing the gender imbalances which have become normalised in our society but this is not enough. The barriers that are faced by young women also stem from social and cultural beliefs and practices.
The theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl Child is, “With Her: A Skilled Girl Force.” Although the theme speaks to the education and skills development of the girl child, the fulfillment of her sexual and reproductive health and rights is key in enabling her to realise her potential and play her part in the development of the nation.
There is a strong link between education and sexual and reproductive health which is often taken for granted but will go a long way in mitigating the challenges faced by young women if addressed. Persistent issues such as teen pregnancies, child marriages and gender based of violence may in many instances have long term effects which negatively affect women empowerment. Although cultural and societal norms and expectations dictate that girls and young women cannot engage in sexual and intercourse until marriage, many do. Transactional relationships, for instance, which have become increasingly common among young women in tertiary institutions often result in unplanned pregnancies and the transmission of Sexually.
Transmitted Infections and HIV/AIDS. Unplanned pregnancies oftentimes deter young women from completing their education.. In Zimbabwe 31% of girls under the age of 18 are married. The demands of motherhood and marriage oftentimes make it difficult for young women to focus on their personal development.
In addition young women are often survivors of gender based violence with 1 in 3 women in Zimbabwe having experienced it. Gender based violence has negative psychological and emotional effects such as depression and post-traumatic stress order which ultimately limit the ability of GBV survivors to reintegrate themselves into normal activities such as schooling.
These challenges can however be addressed by making sexual and reproductive health information and services available to young women, especially in institutions of higher learning where many young women do not only learn but interact. Providing information and services will go a long way in enabling them to make informed choices about their health and ultimately their lives.
There also needs to be a shift in mindsets. Young women should not be thought of merely as future mothers but as future leaders. Changing perceptions of young women’s roles in society will give impetus to efforts to address gender imbalances. It is therefore necessary to address the empowerment of young women holistically so that we can create a powerful and skilled girl force.
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