My body, my rights – questions of consent

#90DaysofCONSENT campaign launch

When can young people consent to receive sexual reproductive health services (SRHS) without parental permission? It’s confusing and inconsistent – and it depends where you are.

The age of consent is a barrier to adolescent and youth access to SRHS across Sub- Saharan Africa. A high age of consent is meant to protect children but vulnerability to sexual and reproductive health risks often starts from early adolescence (from 10 years).

Teen sex is often unplanned or coerced. Adolescents rarely use condoms or other protection when having sex for the first time and younger adolescents face a greater risk than older teens of contracting sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Where a young person fears punishment, or further harm in the case of rape, s/he is unlikely to ask for permission to seek health services. Therefore, reducing the age of consent could enable more young people to have access to SRH services to reduce the risks of unintended pregnancies, contraction of HIV and other STIs, to protect them from abuse and to foster growth and healthy development.

Reducing the age of consent requires legal and policy changes that take into account young people’s autonomy and evolving capacities, as provided for in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. To help secure such reforms, the African Youth and Adolescent Network on Population and Development (AfriYAN) is launching a regional advocacy project in four countries – Malawi, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Zambia.

Dubbed #90DaysofCONSENT, the project will engage stakeholders, including government, law makers, civil society, and youth-led organisations, to push for the necessary measures to eliminate age-related barriers to young people’s enjoyment of their sexual and reproductive health rights and access to SRHS.

#90DaysofCONSENT aims to bring the ages of consent to SRHS in line with regional commitments to sexual and reproductive health, such as the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD, 1994), the Maputo Plan of Action and the ESA (Eastern and Southern Africa) Ministerial Commitment.

Under the ESA Commitment, Ministers of Health and Education of 20 countries committed to scale up youth-friendly HIV and SRH services that take into account social and cultural contexts to improve age-appropriate access to high quality SRHS and commodities. As signatories to various other international instruments, they are required to remove legal, regulatory and policy barriers to SRHS for adolescents and youth. This includes making sure young people have information, access to contraceptives, prevention, diagnosis and treatment for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Even where such services are available in principle, there are practical barriers, such as health care workers being unaware of young people’s SRHR, or unwilling to provide services to them.

Currently, the age of consent for an adolescent to seek HIV testing and counselling, and other services, varies. The table below displays the age variations by the countries where AfriYAN is implementing the project and South Africa:

Country Adolescent age range definition (years) Age of Consent for HIV Testing (years)
South Africa 10-19 12
Zambia 15-19 16
Zimbabwe 12-19 16
Botswana 15-19 16
Malawi 12-19 14

Source: Mapping HIV Services and Policies for Adolescents in Sub-Saharan Africa

South Africa has set the minimum age to access services without parental consent at 12 years. This has been quite controversial, with opponents claiming it encouraged early sex. The AfriYAN project aims to build on and learn from advocacy by RAPCAN (Resources Aimed at the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect) in South Africa, including a successful challenge to legislation that criminalised consensual sexual activity between adolescents aged 12-16 years (See the Learning Brief for a description of this court case).

AfriYAN will conduct advocacy through the Sex Rights Africa Network website and other social media platforms on issues related to the age of consent. Lessons learned and effective practices gathered from this campaign will be packaged into case studies as well as advocacy and policy briefs that reflect the experiences in the four campaign countries. This will enable future regional advocacy efforts to learn from the experience of a youth-led advocacy campaign.

AfriYAN has been awarded a grant from the Regional SRHR Fund to R-SRHR-F LOGO(full Colour)develop and run its #90DaysofCONSENT campaign.

The Fund is supported by the Ford Foundation and Hivos Southern Africa.