Comprehensive sexuality education linked to sexual and reproductive health services reduces early and unintended pregnancies among in-school adolescent girls in Zambia

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Article (peer-reviewed)

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Background: Advancing the health of adolescents, particularly their sexual and reproductive health, including HIV prevention and care, is a development imperative. A critical part for improving their wellbeing and economic development is the social status accorded to adolescent girls and young women (AGYW). However, AGYW in many countries including Zambia, encounter health challenges that stem from gender inequalities, lack of empowerment, inaccurate knowledge on sexuality, and poor access to sexual and reproductive health (SRH) services and information. Addressing the knowledge gaps through comprehensive sexuality education (CSE) and improving access to SRH services and appropriate information, should reduce school attrition from early and unintended pregnancies (EUP) and enhance realization of their full potential. Methods: The aim was to reduce EUP and improve SRH outcomes among AGYW in Zambia through provision of CSE linked to receptive SRH services. A 3-Arm randomized control study collected cross-sectional data at baseline, midline and Endline. Schools where CSE was being routinely provided were randomized into a non-intervention arm (arm1), an intervention arm in which information on available SRH services was provided in schools by health workers to complement CSE, (arm 2), and arm 3 in which pupils receiving CSE were also encouraged or supported to access pre-sensitized, receptive SRH services. Results: Following 3 years of intervention exposure (CSE-Health Facility linkages), findings showed a significant decline of in-school pregnancies amongst AGYW in both intervention arms, with arm two exhibiting a more significant decline, having recorded only 0.74% pregnancies at endline (p < 0.001), as well as arm 3, which recorded 1.34% pregnancies (p < 0.001). No significant decline was recorded in the CSE only control arm. Trends in decline of pregnancies started to show by midline, and persisted at endline (2020), and when difference in differences test was applied, the incident rate ratios (IRR) between the none and exposed arms were equally significant (p < 0.001). Conclusion: Linking provision of CSE with accessible SRH services that are receptive to needs of adolescents and young people reduces EUP, which provides the opportunity for higher retention in school for adolescent girls.