By Marko Phiri
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The death of a 15-year-old Zimbabwean schoolgirl during an apparent botched abortion this month has spurred calls for stronger efforts to prevent teenage pregnancies and unsafe terminations.
Health campaigners in Zimbabwe say the girl's death in a Bulawayo township highlights the inadequate sexual and antenatal health care available to teenagers, whose parents are reluctant to accept they are sexually active.
School authorities and local media have reported cases ranging from schoolgirls giving birth in school grounds to teenage girls hiding their newborn babies in cupboards.
In Zimbabwe's second city Bulawayo, health officials also report a spike in the number of teenage girls seeking post-abortion health care.
Abortion in Zimbabwe is only permitted by law if the pregnancy is a result of rape or there are risks to the mother or the unborn child.
But the Bulawayo municipality says in 2013, more than 300 abortion cases were recorded in seven months in its antenatal clinics, with an unspecified number of teenage girls treated for post-abortion trauma, including severe abdominal pain.
The city's health department officials told the Thomson Reuters Foundation they were still compiling updated statistics for abortion and attempted abortion cases.
"It is no longer a secret that school girls are sexually active and some are aborting," said Susan Karonga, a secondary school teacher who taught the deceased Bulawayo teenager. "But what can we (teachers) do?"
In an effort to tackle teenage pregnancies, Education Minister Lazarus Dokora earlier this year rekindled the suggestion that contraceptives should be made available in schools.
The proposal was met with hostility by many parents, and the two sides have failed to reach an agreement.
'CONCOCTIONS OF HERBS'
Up to 59 percent of sexually active women in Zimbabwe have access to contraceptives – among the highest levels in sub-Sahara Africa, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Zimbabwe is aiming to increase this to 68 percent by 2020, based on commitments made at the 2012 London Summit on Family Planning.
But evidence pointing to an increase in abortions among teenagers highlights the difficulties schoolgirls face accessing contraception in the predominantly Christian country where pregnancy out of wedlock is still stigmatized.
Karonga said pupils "dumped by their lovers and abusers" were undergoing unsafe abortions carried out by older women in their neighborhoods in very dangerous conditions.
"I have heard about wires being inserted in the girls' privates and pulling out the foetus while others are prescribed concoctions of herbs," the teacher said.
Medical and aid charities working to reduce Zimbabwe's maternal mortality rates, which they say are increased by unsafe abortions, have asked parliament to review the country's abortion laws.
Campaigners say up to 70,000 illegal abortions are carried out annually in Zimbabwe, despite the risk of a five-year jail term.
Marie Stopes International, an NGO that offers free contraception at public clinics, including long-acting and permanent (LAPM) contraceptives, says in 2013, it helped to avert 31,000 unsafe abortions.
"Abortion is real here, some mothers have actually approached me asking if I could help their school-going daughter abort," said Silabazio Tshili, a midwife at a government hospital.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)