NATIONAL Aids Council (NAC) director policy and programmes Dr John Mwale says government should consider revising the consent age for access to sexual reproductive health because adolescents under the age of 16 are still shunning the services due to parental consent required.

In an interview, Dr Mwale said that children under 15, who were the main victims of teenage pregnancies, were being turned away from health centres due to lack of consent from parents.

“What we are saying is, can we have young people access these services without necessarily getting consent because right now, we have also noted that in terms of new infections, they have gone up. HIV new infections have gone up, in 2016/17 somewhere there, we were reporting that we have 43,000 new infections every year and in 2019, as the National Aids Council, we were reporting higher figures: 51,000 new infections and when you look at the age brackets that are actually more affected, it’s the young people whom we are not actually providing these services to,” Dr Mwale said.

He explained that the age of consent should not always refer to sexual consent, but access to reproductive health services.

“What we are saying is that, I think when one hears about the age of consent, what comes to mind is the age at which someone should have sex, that’s not what we mean. I think what we are saying is that, young people should actually be free to access these services. A young person aged say, 15, 14, 13 should actually be free to access these health services. Now, our age of consent as a country is at 16 so meaning that if you are 16 years and below, you cannot access certain services without consent. Here, you are saying 15 years and you want to go for an HIV test or you want to access certain services like condoms and many other services, before doing that, you are supposed to go to your parent or guardian to get consent to do that. If you, as a young person, you test positive, there are initiatives like self-testing now. If you test positive before you link yourself to care, you have to go to your parent to actually get consent and in most cases we have seen that young people are shunning these services because you can’t go to your parent or guardian to get this consent,” he explained.

He added that the rise in the number of teenage pregnancies was a sign that young people were not protecting themselves, hence the need for them to access SRH services without restriction.

“An interesting thing you note when it comes to statistics, you note that teen pregnancies and I will use the Zambia Demographic Survey, in 2007, we were at 27 per cent, the latest data in the 2018 Survey shows that we have gone to 29 per cent and when you look at the age bracket, you will note that these are young people that are doing their primary school so probably it’s age 10 to somewhere around 15 mainly, these are the young people that are falling pregnant. When you look at the Ministry of General Education, every year, we have a minimum of about 16,000 girls, young girls, teenagers, falling pregnant and drawn out of school. When one gets pregnant that means they had sex without protection so to us in the HIV response and others, what we think is happening is that young people are not protecting themselves because of some of these guidelines that we have,” said Dr Mwale.