COVID-19 lockdowns increased teenage pregnancies in Zambia

Lockdowns and other restrictions imposed due to the coronavirus  crisis have led to a rise in teenage pregnancies in Zambia. Aid organisations, including ZOA, warn of a regression in girls’ rights.

Girls are much more vulnerable to sexual abuse without the safety structures provided by schools. It is estimated that school closures during crises can lead to increases in teenage pregnancy by as much as 65%.

Nita, 19, one of Zambia’s 1.2 million orphaned and vulnerable children, lives with her grandmother explains, “Life became so hard. In trying to earn a living, I found myself in a bad group of friends and led me to sex work so I could buy food, soap and sanitary materials. I fell pregnant. I don’t have enough money to buy clothes for the baby and my friends tease me a lot so I felt too shy to go to school.”

An estimated one million girls in sub-Saharan Africa risk not returning to school due to pregnancy.

Pretty Chikondo, 26, a teacher at ZOA supported Chibolya School says, “Many pupils have dropped out of school as they’ve been involved in sexual activities that have led to both early marriages and pregnancies. Pupils who’ve dropped out of school need support and those who are pregnant need to be offered counselling and encouragement to continue with their education after delivery [of the baby].”

Poverty is also a factor in underage pregnancies. With inflation in Zambia reaching 24.6% this year, already vulnerable families are struggling to make ends meet. Those who are poor tend to marry their girls off. Before the pandemic Zambia already had one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with 31.4% of women married by the age of 18.

Patricia Mbao, ZOA-Zambia Project Coordinator explains, “While coronavirus can affect anyone, it’s clear that the most vulnerable in our communities have been affected more.”

She continues, “Many girls became pregnant during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The girls we talked to attributed their pregnancy to increasing poverty levels and the lockdown. They informed us that due to restricted movements and a lack of activities they ended up being taken advantage of. Not being at school or taking part in their usual activities outside of the house meant that more time was spent at home and because of this they became more vulnerable to their male family members. It’s now more important than ever before to educate and keep vulnerable children safe.”

Teenage pregnancy is an indicator that young people are engaging in unprotected sex. While not all who engage in unprotected sex get HIV, unprotected sex puts them at risk of contracting HIV. Prevalence of HIV/AIDS in Zambia is currently 11.3% with 94,000 under the age of 15.

Our pilot project project in Lusaka will build resilience and self-confidence by boosting HIV prevention and knowledge of reproductive health and sexual rights amongst 1,100 at-risk students through HIV testing, child-led drama, music performance and community-based psychosocial counselling.

We’ve also stepped up our counselling programme reaching 1018 children and young people. We have

trained 86 more people to provide vital counselling to help orphans and other vulnerable children build coping mechanisms and self confidence. We have already halved the number of young people experiencing sadness and depression. Through our partners we are educating pupils about life skills and the value of education to help them understand their rights as well as supporting counselling sessions that target children in and out of school.

Nita explains the help the counselling gave her, “The guidance teacher visited me at home and talked to me and my parents about how school was happy to take me back after I’d delivered the baby. She also taught me how I should protect myself. I’m excited that I can now attend school. I can now fulfil my dreams of becoming a nurse.”