Adolescent girls and young women must boldly and unapologetically seek sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services. The stigma and harmful gender norms associated with sexual and reproductive health and rights are not going anywhere, says Nyasha Phanisa Sithole, a Zimbabwean sexual and reproductive health and rights leader.
“If you are afraid of stigma, then you will not be able to access these services because we are not going to have a stigma-free environment any time soon,” she says.
Working as a sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate and a regional lead for young women’s advocacy, leadership and training at the Athena Network, Ms Sithole believes everyone has a role to play in changing the status quo and influencing decision-making.
“My story is common. It is that of a 16-year-old adolescent girl who needed access to HIV prevention commodities, but only had condoms available and, in rare cases, pre-exposure prophylaxis,” Ms Sithole says, reflecting on her experience as an adolescent.
Despite this common story, the need for comprehensive HIV, sexual and reproductive health and rights and sexual and gender-based violence services in the eastern and southern African region is critical.
Adolescent girls and young women aged 15-24 years account for 29% of new HIV infections among adults aged 15 years and older in the eastern and southern African region, when they only comprise 10% of the population. This means that there are 3600 new HIV infections per week among adolescent girls and young women in the region, which is more than double that of their male peers (1700 weekly).
The stigma and discrimination that young people face, particularly adolescent girls and young women, to access sexual and reproductive health and rights services creates barriers at various levels, including the individual, interpersonal, community and societal levels.
Furthermore, documented health rights abuses include the unauthorized disclosure of health status, being denied sexual and reproductive health and rights services and related psychological violence.
In 2014, Ms Sithole went undercover as a secret client at a youth-friendly health centre in Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital city, in a district with residential areas and schools. The first person she encountered at the centre was a nosy security guard.
“He asked me: ‘What do you need?’ A health screening, I replied. Then he asked, “Asi wakarumwa?” Meaning, “Have you been bitten?” In Shona, this is street language for someone who has a sexually transmitted infection,” she recalls.
Had she not been well-informed, Ms Sithole says she would have felt scared. “It’s something that can scare you or put you off to say, “It’s just a security guard, why are they mocking me or my situation?” Because imagine if I really had a condition that I wanted to manage, what would happen then?”
Ms Sithole said health-care workers sometimes look at adolescent girls and young women accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights services with disdain and judgement and ask, “How old are you and what do you need the condom or contraception for?”
Considering the stigma attached to accessing sexual and reproductive health and rights services, community organizations play a critical role for adolescent girls and young women. Organizations empower them with sexual and reproductive health and rights information and service referrals.
However, COVID-19 greatly impacted how these organizations work in Zimbabwe, which enforced lockdown restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.
“I think all governments weren’t fair when they clamped down restrictions on each and every organization that was working in communities,” Ms Sithole says, adding that it negatively impacted young people’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services.
To mitigate these risks, the Global HIV Prevention Coalition, co-convened by UNAIDS and the United Nations Population Fund, came on board to provide financial and technical support to the Athena Network in 10 countries, including Zimbabwe, to establish What Girls Want focal people in each country. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the focal people, who are adolescent girls and young women, mobilized their peers to conduct dialogues via WhatsApp to discuss the issues they face and seek peer support.
Ms Sithole says governments should invest in policy change and development to create an enabling environment where adolescent girls and young women can access sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV information and services.
Despite the stigma and discrimination attached to seeking sexual and reproductive health and rights services, Ms Sithole says adolescent girls and young women should realize their power and use their agency to get what they need.
“Think about your life because your life is more important than anything else. So, no matter what happens, if you know there is a service you can access, go for it,” she advises.