A consultative meeting on creating a legal and policy environment supportive to the implementation of the Eastern and Southern African (ESA) commitment by SADC legislators was held in Johannesburg, South Africa last Thursday.
The gathering that concluded last Friday was attended by over 50 members of parliament from Eastern and Southern African countries to discuss issues related to sexuality and reproductive health rights.
The meeting, organized by the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF), emanated from an Eastern and Southern African commitment (ESA commitment) made by regional health and education ministers in 2013 to deliver comprehensive sexuality education.
The meeting was opened by Monica Mutsvangwa, a Zimbabwean member of parliament, who just got elected as vice-president of SADC-PF.
Mutsvangwa noted during her opening statement that members of parliament have a bigger role to play as representatives of the electorate.
She further called for a streamlining of national budgets to respond to sexuality and health rights issues in the region.
ESA commitment background
In December 2013, ministers of education and health from 20 Eastern and Southern African countries affirmed and endorsed their joint commitment to deliver comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services for young people.
The ESA commitment document culminated from a regional report on SRH issues among adolescents and young people in the ESA region.
That report brought to light the many predicaments adolescents and young people face in the ESA region including a staggering figure of 430 000 young people being infected with HIV per year in the ESA region.
This is further compounded by HIV knowledge levels that remain below 40% and teenage pregnancy rates and maternal mortality that are high. Some of the ESA targets include increasing to 95 percent the number of adolescents and young people knowledgeable in comprehensive HIV prevention, reducing early and unintended pregnancies among young people by 75 percent and eliminating gender-based violence and child marriages, among many others.
Parliamentarians therefore have a role to play in identifying weaknesses in existing legislation related to SRH and propose and amend acts so as to address these issues.
Namibia’s commitment to sexuality issues
Namibia recognizes the fact that sexuality education is part and parcel of human rights and human health development as enshrined in its constitution. Sexuality education opens the doors for Namibian citizens to make choices regarding their sexuality and reproductive health rights (SRHR).
Namibia has already committed itself to sexuality and reproductive health issues by signing various regional and international conventions aimed at ensuring the successful implementation of SRHR. It has recently become the implementer of the SADC-PF project on SRHR following other SADC countries such as Zambia, Seychelles, Angola, Tanzania, Lesotho, Mauritius and Zimbabwe. Through this project, which ends in 2018, Namibian members of parliament have committed themselves to be advocates of sexual reproductive health rights and HIV and AIDS.
Challenges on sexuality and reproductive health rights
Challenges Namibia is grappling with regarding sexuality matters abound. Even though great strides have been made, Namibia still remains one of the countries with the highest prevalence rates of HIV in the world.
The scourge is most prevalent among young people with young women constituting the majority of new cases.
However, success stories in the fight against HIV and AIDS include a reduction of the epidemic profile from HIV prevalence of 22 percent in 2002 to about 16.7 percent in 2014, according to the 2014 national HIV sentinel survey results.
The prevention of mother to child transmission programme (PMTCT) has also been very successful.
Teenage pregnancy has been on the increase in Namibia for many years. Many young girls as a result face the risk of dropping out of school to care for their babies. Factors attributed to these early and unintended pregnancies are poverty, lack of access to comprehensive sexuality education, peer pressure and alcohol and drug abuse. Statistics provided by UNFPA suggest that some regions in Namibia have pregnancy rates exceeding 36 percent.
These are Kunene (39 percent), Omaheke (38 percent) and Kavango (34 percent). Namibian MP Bernadette Jagger in her contribution during discussions at the meeting noted that as a way to prevent and manage teenage pregnancy, the government of Namibia has developed an education sector policy for the prevention and management of learner pregnancy. The policy seeks to prevent and manage incidences of learner pregnancy and stop any child missing out on education.
This has been done by making schools safer, ensuring easy access to contraceptives and encouraging alcohol free social activities as well as the employment of teacher counsellors and life skills teachers.
As part of managing the crisis, schoolgirls further have access to antenatal care services and may return to school when falling pregnant until four weeks before their expected due date. Petrina Haingura, who supported her fellow MP, further noted that a multi – sectoral approach was needed to tackle SRHR challenges.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges Namibia has been battling with of late has been gender-based violence. Almost each week a gender-based violent crime is committed. So called “passion killings” have become a common occurrence. The latter was qualified when statistics at the meeting from the UNFPA revealed that Namibia leads the Southern African region in terms of prevalence of intimate partner violence in the past 12 months, and among adolescents girls aged 15-19 with more than 40 percent. All forms of gender-based violence such as rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and forced marriages are a blatant violation of human rights.
Despite Namibia having one of the world’s most exemplary legislations on this scourge, gender-based violence continues unabated. Other challenges related to SRHR include child marriages, poverty, child trafficking and homosexuality, issues that continue to have ongoing discussions. Namibian MPs represented at the meeting included Petrina Haingura, Gortthard Kasuto, Jennifer van der Heever, Meundju Jahanika and Bernadette Jagger. The meeting ended on Friday.
* George Sanzila is chief information officer at the National Assembly in the division Research, Information, Publications and Editorial Services. He is also attached to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Gender Equality, Social Development and Family Affairs as a media liaison person and researcher.