Pushing age of sexual consent deprives health rights to 450 000 adolescents: NGO

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By James Muonwa

SEXUAL Reproductive Health Rights Africa Trust (SAT) says the recent increase of the age of sexual consent from 16 to 18 potentially threatens the right to natural adolescent development and the right to access health care for over 450 000 adolescents.

A Constitutional Court ruling on May 24, 2022, in effect, raised the age of legal sexual consent in Zimbabwe from 16 to 18 years, thereby excluding the sexually active 16 and 17 year-olds.

In a statement on Tuesday, SAT said the decision posed a danger to young adults who would not be able to freely access sexual reproductive health services.

“We believe that there are significant dangers flowing from the decision which, when applied in law, have the potential to threaten the right to natural adolescent development as well as the right to access health care for some 450 000 adolescents aged between 16 and 17 years,” reads the statement.

“Unless these dangers are mitigated in law, they may as well hamper Zimbabwe’s commitment to health for all its citizens, our obligations to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) by 2030, and most devastatingly, our national potential to achieve a demographic dividend boost to national development.”

The non-governmental organisation noted the necessity of the ruling, but warned it had far-reaching consequences.

“As SAT, we understand the good intentions of those who brought the case, and we recognise the parameters of the case within which the court found itself dispensing the judgement it gave. We all rely on the primacy of our nation’s constitution, and on the Justices that interpret it, to protect our rights.

“On several issues, the judgement showed remarkable prescience for the tasks now ahead. It recognised the reality that adolescents are having, and will continue to have sex, and that their rights to appropriate health care cannot be impacted,” further said SAT.

“The paradox is that whilst it is highly desirable that children should stay away from sex until they are adults, the lived reality may be otherwise. Children who have sexual relations still have the right to health care services, notwithstanding their youthfulness. Efforts to accommodate their health care services needs must be scaled up.”

SAT emphasised health care providers need empowerment by law to provide sexual and reproductive health services to children in need of such services without regarding them as too young.

Many adolescents engage in consensual sex with one another, SAT also noted.

Added SAT: “We can approximate that the serious impact includes some 450 000 adolescents, who will, potentially, in future face jail terms for what might be healthy boyfriend/girlfriend relationships that are a natural part of growing up into a healthy loving adult. There is anecdotal evidence that a significant number of adolescent boys in jails across the SADC region–the course of their young lives forever altered–are there for consensual sex offences.”

It is widely accepted in jurisprudence, in law making and in policy, that the best interests of the child ought to take precedence over all else in matters that consider the welfare of children.

Section 81(2) of the Constitution ensures all Zimbabwean children are protected, including adolescents.

SAT reiterated it is now incumbent on NGOs working on adolescent rights, government, parliament, and UN agencies, to act swiftly, collectively, and bravely to protect children from sexual exploitation, and guard adolescents from unwarranted criminalisation and persecution for consensual sex with other adolescents.