Monday, March 27, 2023

With more girls pregnant, Zimbabwe pushes for return to school

Murehwa, Zimbabwe – Inside a poorly furnished two-room house in rural Zimbabwe, a 3-month-old baby cries. His mother, Virginia Mavunga, spends her days traveling to the well with a bucket on her head, selling fruit and vegetables on the roadside, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry – she has so much to offer to her child, Tawannyasha. . Very relaxing

“That’s my life now, every day,” said the new mom.

In between her strict routine, Virginia prepares her four younger siblings for school and helps them with homework when they return. These actions hit Virginia hardest—because, at 13, she would be in school, too.

Virginia is part of the massive increase in pregnancies among girls and teens reported in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries during the pandemic. Zimbabwe has long struggled with such pregnancies and child marriages. Before COVID-19 hit, one in three girls in the country were married before the age of 18, with many unplanned pregnancies, due to lax enforcement of laws, widespread poverty, and cultural and religious practices.


This story is part of a year-long series describing the impact the pandemic is having on women in Africa, the least developed of the countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Development Journalism Grant Program of the Center for European Journalism, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Associated Press is responsible for all content.


The spread of coronavirus intensified the situation. The country of 15 million people imposed a strict lockdown in March 2020, closing schools for six months and only reopening them in between. Girls in particular were left inactive and out of reach of contraceptives and clinics; The problems of poor families have increased.

Advocates and officials said many girls were victims of sexual abuse or considered marriage and pregnancy as a way out of poverty. Before the pandemic, many such girls were “removed as a lost cause,” said Taungana Ndoro, an education official in Zimbabwe.

But in the face of rising numbers, the government changed a law in August 2020, which had long banned schools for pregnant students. Activists and officials called the move an important step in the developing nation, but so far the new policy has largely failed. Most of the girls have not returned to school, with officials and families citing economic hardship, deep-seated cultural norms, and stigma and bullying in the classroom.


The Associated Press does not generally name victims of sexual abuse without consent. For this story, the girls and their families have agreed to identify and publish their names, taking into account their willingness to tell their stories.


Virginia tried to return to school while pregnant as part of a policy change. The officers encouraged him and his parents. But she was the object of mockery and the subject of gossip in a community that was not accustomed to seeing a pregnant girl in school uniform.

“People used to laugh at me. Some people would point and ask in derision; ‘What’s up with that belly? she said, looking at a picture of herself in a purple uniform. She has since sold it for $2 to pay for baby clothes and other necessities.

Virginia said she hoped that the older man who had impregnated her would marry her. Despite initial promises, he eventually denied paternity, she said. Despite the age of consent in Zimbabwean law being 16 years, she and her family did not pursue a statutory rape case with the police.

Under the law, those convicted of having sex or committing an “indecent act” with a person under the age of 16 can be fined or jailed for up to 10 years. But most events never go that far. Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said families and authorities have long tried to “carpet cases or … forcing a marriage on a minor”.

Nyathi said families often try to negotiate with the offender, forcing him to marry the girl and give cattle or money to her family. They then agree not to report the matter to the police – ultimately “assisting in the abuse of the girl,” he said.

Police said they could not provide data related to the cases being prosecuted or reported. Nyathi said a tally would be ready by the end of January – but any figures are likely to fall short.

Zimbabwe has statistics on pregnancies of girls who drop out of school – and while they show an alarming increase, officials say they, too, reflect a low number, as many girls simply drop out without reason.

In 2018, around 3,000 girls across the country dropped out of school due to pregnancies. In 2019, that number remained relatively stable. Number increased in 2020: 4,770 pregnant students dropped out of school.

And in 2021, it skyrocketed: About 5,000 students became pregnant in the first two months of the year, according to Sithembiso Nyoni, Minister of Women’s Affairs.

Across Africa, Zimbabwe is not alone: ​​during the pandemic, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, South Africa and Zambia “all reported a significant increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, which contributed to the reported increase.” in pregnancies among young and adolescent girls, according to a report by Amnesty International. The United Nations, and Zimbabwe and a handful of other countries now have laws or policies in place to protect girls’ education while pregnant, across the continent The pregnancy rate among adolescents is among the highest in the world.

Changes in Zimbabwean law gave community activists the opportunity to encourage girls to return to school. Through a group promoting girls’ rights, Tsitsei Chitongo holds community meetings and knocks on doors to speak with families in remote rural areas.

But the lack of enthusiasm from the families shook him. By November, his group had persuaded only one child to return to school in Murehwa – a poor rural settlement of mostly small farmers dealing with the consequences of the drought, some 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the capital Harare.

That girl only lasted a week in school, Chitongo said. Apart from the girls herself, she sees resistance from parents, community leaders and teachers.

“Most parents are still stuck in the old way of doing things,” she said. “They love to marry off the child, even if it’s under 18. They tell us, ‘I’m already struggling to take care of my family; when the girl gives birth I Can’t stand the extra mouth.’ That’s why children are being run away from home.”

Some schools discourage girls from returning despite recent changes, Chitongo said.

“Sometimes headmasters tell us they don’t understand how the policy works and they refuse to accept children,” he said. “They complain that pregnant girls are not focused. Some people just tell us that the school is full.”

Often girls are unaware that they have a right to be in school. Chitongo said they are then often forced to find work as housewives to support their children. Or they go to the men who impregnated them.

For 16-year-old Tanaka Ravizi, the backyard of a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in the poverty-stricken Mbare settlement has replaced school. There, a club for teen moms offers a crash course on life skills and the way they can make a living, like giving manicures and making soaps for sale.

Tanaka dropped out of school early last year after becoming pregnant. She lives with her unemployed uncle in a room divided by a screen. Every Thursday she gathers with other girls for the clinic’s program. It began in 2019 for a handful of participants, but demand grew during the pandemic, said Grace Maweza of Doctors Without Borders. So far, more than 300 girls have attended the program since the COVID-19 hit.

Maveza said most girls opt for the program rather than formal school because they need a skill that can help them “earn money quickly”. “There is much poverty; They need to take care of their children.”

Many even put their eyes on marriage to survive. Tanaka said the 20-year-old who got her pregnant promised to marry her when she was 18 – the youngest allowed in Zimbabwean law.

Tanaka said, “I can’t wait that long.” She planned to visit him soon after giving birth.

The clinic also offers contraception. But travel restrictions have deprived many young people of such facilities, cutting off access not only to contraceptives but also to counselling. Clinic staff say many young people need services because of conservative parents who link contraceptives to prostitution. There has been outrage over proposals to supply contraceptives to schools in this conservative and deeply religious country.

Yvette Kanenungo, a 20-year-old volunteer at the clinic, said, “Our parents have banned girls from taking contraception because of the traditional myth, that girls can’t have sex until they’re 20 or married. ” “The truth is that girls are already having sex but cannot freely take contraception at home because of pre-marriage decrees.”

For Virginia, travel restrictions meant she was stuck at home in Murrehwa after visiting her parents from her hometown school last year. She enrolled at a local school instead, but spent little time there because of the intermittent closure.

First, Virginia’s parents—who try to support the family by sorting out market items for sale and re-growing their drought-damaged land—a statutory rape against that older man. who had impregnated her. But when he was released on bail, he gave up and said that he now hoped that he would look after the child.

Virginia’s father ignored neighbors’ advice to leave his daughter at home. His mother wanted to protect him, and this included keeping him out of school and away from harassment.

Virginia vows to return to school someday, though. She misses her classes, her peers. She wants to graduate and be accepted into a university, so she can build a big house, get a degree and repay her parents’ trust.

“I would rather go back to school than get married,” she said. “I am not afraid to go back to school when my child grows up. They may laugh at me now, but I’m devoting all my free time and weekends to reading and catching up.

“It’s not the end of the road, just a forced pause.”


This story is part of a year-long series describing the impact the pandemic is having on women in Africa, the least developed of the countries. Associated Press’s series is funded by the European Development Journalism Grant Program of the European Journalism Centre, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Associated Press is responsible for all content.


Follow Associated Press’s multiformat Africa news on Twitter: Associated Press—Africa


Watch the full series on how the pandemic is affecting women in Africa:


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