Onward Chironda (25), is the Executive Director of My Age Zimbabwe Trust, a Southern African AIDS Trust (SAT) partner organisation. He reflects on the second edition of the Southern African Regional Students and Youth Conference (SARSYC) held in Johannesburg, South Africa, from the 13th to the 16t of July 2017.
“As a member of the SAT Regional Youth Hubs, I was invited to attend the exciting SARSYC conference. This years’ theme was ‘Building a business case for a solid future: promoting access to youth sexual and reproductive health rights (SRHR) services and commodities.’
The session which stood out was the disturbing phenomenon aptly coined “Sexually Transmitted Degrees.” This resonates and best describes the vulnerability of young people at tertiary and higher institutions of learning.
The conference created a safe space for discussions and themes, such as Gender-Based Violence (GBV), discrimination and inequality which young women experience in society spilling over to educational institutions were discussed. Disturbingly, high rates of sexual harassment haunts many girls from high school and extends well into their tertiary education experience, creating long and protracted cycles of abuse and impacting almost all aspects of their lives.
Concerns raised at the conference were on the rising HIV infection rates among adolescents and youth in eastern and southern Africa (ESA). While HIV prevalence among adolescents and young people in the region remain high, HIV knowledge levels remain persistently low. There is a need for serious discussions and considerations if the region wants to turn the tide. HIV-related stigma and discrimination fuelled by attitudes, some based on laws and policies, continue to hamper the region’s responses to the epidemic. They prevent young people from accessing a wide range of key sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services, even at tertiary education institutions.
The conference discussed SRHR challenges that students face in most institutions of higher learning. Students noted that ‘a thigh for a mark,’ was becoming common practice, with lecturers manipulating students for sexual favours in exchange for marks to pass their studies. The behaviour further increases the spread of HIV: there is seldom any sanctions metered out to the perpetrators.
Students lamented the lack of facilities and access to SRHR products including condoms in higher education facilities. They noted the lack of information on access to SRHR services within their learning environments. Female students expressed fear to speak out on abuse and violence within the institutions of higher learning. Many tertiary institutions lack supportive structures and policies for equality, thus placing students in a vulnerable position and a risk of failing their course and completing their studies.
The conference provided a platform for thought-provoking discussions and sharing of experiences on SRHR service provision in tertiary institutions. It made a bold call to change the SRHR agenda in tertiary institutions of learning considering rampant violence, harassment of students and the lack of access to services specifically for women and key populations.”
Onward Chironda (25) is a SAT Regional Youth Hub Member| Executive Director of My Age Zimbabwe Trust | Women Deliver Young Leader