Is African culture at odds with the reality of sexuality among youth? A little over a week ago, President John Magufuli of Tanzania declared that he would not allow school girls who become pregnant to be readmitted into school. His reason was that young mothers would be distracted if they are allowed back into school and would encourage other girls to engage in sex. This statement attracted a wave of backlash from activists in Tanzania and across Africa who see this as a step backwards in the fight to improve access to education for girls and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for youth. Within hours online petitions were set up calling for the president to retract his statement. While shocking to some, Magufuli’s line of thought is not new.
In 2015, A deputy mayor in Kabwe, located in Zambia’a Central Province made a similar statement. My response to this was an open letter addressed to the mayor, requesting him to reconsider his stance given that girls in Zambia already face many barriers to completing their education. What appears to be at play in both these instances is the application of cultural and religious ideologies of morality to solving issues regarding risky sexual behavior among youth. In fact, President Magufuli referred to a law passed in 2002 that allows pregnant school-girls to be expelled from school for “offences against morality and wedlock”. At the risk of painting the continent with a single brush, I will state that many African societies tend towards conservative values regarding sexuality. In Zambian culture for instance, sex is a taboo topic for unmarried youth and parents often leave sex education to marital counselors who supposedly teach young couples all they need to know ahead of the marriage ceremony. A common pitfall with taboos, however, is that they create a vacuum of knowledge which is often filled by misinformation as curious minds, especially young ones, attempt to understand and even experience the forbidden. While aiming to preserve a moral ideology, our societies remain in denial of the fact that a significant percentage of African youth are and will continue to be sexually active.
According to World Bank data, teenage pregnancy rates in 2014 were 28.2% and 26.7% in Zambia and Tanzania respectively. While part of this can be attributed to the prevalence of child marriage, it is compounded by the fact that many youth lack access to the sex education and reproductive health services required to prevent pregnancy and diseases. Tanzania is one of six African countriesthat account for a staggering half of the global population of 15-19 year olds living with HIV. Youth are particularly vulnerable given the cultural barriers to accessing sexual and reproductive health services. A 16-year-old school girl making a trip to a local clinic to ask about sexual and reproductive health services will likely be met with judgement. This expectation causes many youth to shun such services, increasing the chances of them engaging in unsafe sex.
Clearly, preaching abstinence alone has failed to prevent risky sexual behaviors among African youth that are responsible for high rates of teenage pregnancy and HIV infection. What youth need today is comprehensive sex education in and outside school, as well as access to proper sexual and reproductive health services at health centers. Data has shown that armed with the right resources, young people are able to make better decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health. The 2017 African Union Commission report titled Harnessing the Demographic Dividend through Investments in Youth states that young people with access to SRH services are better positioned to prevent unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, enabling them to contribute to the economy. For adolescent girls, this means being able to complete more years of schooling without disruption. It is time for our leaders to rethink the notion of using cultural and moral ideologies in formulating policy without considering the reality faced by youth today.