Gobabis-The Omaheke Region has continuously struggled to significantly contain teenage pregnancy particularly among school-going girls.
The problem has become so pervasive that a 12-year-old girl at one of the primary schools fell pregnant in 2015, exposing her to health risks such as sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV and AIDS.
This is among many other similar cases.
What seems to exacerbate matters is that fathers responsible for these pregnancies are not only fellow learners but adult men too.
Members of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Gender Equality, Social Development and Family Affairs unearthed this shocking phenomenon when they met stakeholders on Monday in a meeting meant to ascertain health challenges in the Omaheke Region, specifically related to sexual reproductive health rights and HIV and AIDS.
In the case of the 12-year-old it was revealed the adolescent girl fell pregnant after her grandfather, who cannot be named in order to protect the identity of the victim, forced himself on her. The grandparent is said to be in his 70s. The latter case amounts to statutory rape and the grandparent was subsequently arrested and remains in police custody.
The girl, who has since given birth to a healthy baby, did not have a legal abortion, as it was too late for her to do so.
The latter could be the tip of the iceberg as many cases go unreported.
There have been 16 cases of pregnancy below the age of 15 years since last year, according to statistics provided by the Ministry of Health and Social Services. Older men tend to account for a large number of pregnancies in adolescent girls.
Sixteen years is the legal age of consent for sexual activity in Namibia and men that violate such a law are liable for prosecution on a charge of statutory rape.
Statistics further revealed that close to 600 teenage pregnancies occurred among girls that are 15 to 19 years of age from last year to date.
Officials at the meeting were in agreement that most of these learners fall pregnant during school vacations and blame peer pressure, alcohol abuse, lack of comprehensive sex education in schools and weak parental involvement in sexual awareness matters.
The latter is still seen as a taboo by most parents, they surmised. The ethical dilemma of whether it was morally right to distribute contraceptives such as condoms at school premises featured among the discussions. One official was further not happy with the learner pregnancy policy that he says only targets male teachers and not any other professionals. The policy calls for the dismissal of teachers found impregnating learners.
Other health matters of concern in the region include early childhood marriage, particularly among the San community.
According to Ikka Tjipetekera, who heads the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare in the region, poverty leads many San girls to marry at a tender age and as a result they get caught in a vicious cycle of abuse.
“Child marriages mostly occur among the San community here. It is mostly an issue of dependence and as a result they become victims of abuse and constantly return to their partners even when abused,” stated Tjipetekera.
She noted that the lack of a place of safety for victims of gender-based violence further puts the majority of women on the receiving end.
Another driver of gender-based violence in the region, according to officials, is the accepted norm of patriarchy in communities, that has allowed men to dominate decisions, further pushing women on the periphery when making sexual choices that are important to their health.
MPs were also enlightened about the worrying trend of selling HIV medication apparently to drug dealers as part of ingredients for a concoction of dangerous mind-altering drugs.
At a public hearing that followed, men lamented the exclusion of men in gender-related programmes and interventions, noting that their seclusion was detrimental to the fight against gender-based violence.
The community further attributed many of their societal challenges to alcohol abuse and bemoaned the mushrooming of shebeens, particularly in the informal settlement of Epako.
“Most of these sheebens that are destroying our lives are owned by people that are well off who stay in big houses in town. Closing hours are not strictly enforced and our young people are abusing alcohol, leading to many incidents of crime and teenage pregnancy,” lamented a religious leader during the meeting.
Member of Parliament Petrina Haingura cautioned community members not to remain mere observers, adding that the enactment of laws is not enough if people themselves are not willing to change their conduct.
“This should be a fight for all of us. It should start with the intervention of community members themselves. We can put in place many laws that restrict alcohol but if people themselves don’t see the danger, it would be futile,” warned Haingura.
Omaheke Region has seven constituencies and a sparsely located population exceeding 70,000 with one district hospital, 14 clinics and one health centre. It grapples with a 13% HIV prevalence rate, lack of staff and transport. MPs are on a weeklong visit of Omaheke to learn about the status of health facilities and issues of sexual reproductive health rights and HIV and AIDS, in partnership with the SADC-parliamentary forum, the forerunner of the project.
*George Sanzila is the chief information officer in the Division of Research, Information, Publication and Editorial Services at the National Assembly in Windhoek.