Harare — Information about sexual and reproductive health is hard to come by for Zimbabwean adolescents who live on the streets. While some of these youth do practise birth control, mostly in the form of oral contraception, they still often lack other essential information or the basic life skills to access it. Concerned groups in Harare are trying to change that.
Sixteen-year-old Chipo Manenga and her friends don't know the names of the contraceptives they take. But they do know that if pregnancy is to be prevented, the pills that come in rolls are the ones they are supposed to buy.
"I take family-planning pills but, because I am not educated, I can't read," Chipo says. Dressed in tattered clothes and living on the streets, she is already at pains to look after her two children. Her firstborn, Tapiwa, is two years old; Tadiwanashe is a year and a month. "I know that family-planning tablets prevent unwanted pregnancies. I buy the pills at Mbare Msika," adds the young mother, referring to a local agro-produce market.
According to a recent Cesvi survey conducted in Harare and Chitungwiza, there are about 705 children and young people living on the streets. The sexually active among them represent an especially vulnerable group.
Winidzai Rwaendipi, a child protection officer working for Cesvi, emphasizes the need to respect the rights of street children. "If they want to engage in family-planning activities, then we respect their choices. We also provide condoms for free so that they can use," she says.
But among most street children, condoms gets dropped soon after boyfriends are considered stable and reliable. Yet, males are more prone to having multiple sexual partners than their non-street counterparts. Males are also more wont to participate in risky sexual activities.
Take, Tawanda, who admits to having unprotected sex with his partner. He also confirms that she is not using birth control pills. "Using condoms is abortion," he says. "It's like masturbation. You will be killing. God does not want anyone who kills."
What, then, can be done to ensure a better future for Zimbabwe's sexually active street children?
"Sexual and reproductive health rights need to be integrated in an approach that takes care of the other needs of street children pertaining to livelihoods and security," says SAfAIDS programme manager Juliet Mukaronda. Her Harare-based organization is implementing a three-year programme meant to do just that.
Chitiga Mbanje, a peer project coordinator of the NGO Streets Ahead, describes how his organization aims to assist youth living and working on the streets "to find their way back home" - a phrase used both figuratively and literally. Youngsters who don't know their relatives can get surrogate help. Others can be counselled to try to solve problems that caused them to run away in the first place and then successfully reengage them with their family members.
Mbanje also optimistically cites the Ministry of Health's national adolescent sexual reproductive health strategy. Referring to the Zimbabwe National Family Council centre and clinic for youth living on the streets, he notes: "It has been so effective to the point that young boys and girls can now openly go there without fear."