BY MOSES MATENGA
THESE days, people often talk about the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic and a struggling global economy.
Seldom do they discuss about the advent of another sinister pandemic, evidence is showing an alarming increase in all forms of gender-based violence during these unprecedented times.
For example, as economies shut down and stay-at-home orders become the new normal, an unspoken and damaging effect of the pandemic is a spike in child marriages nationally.
In fact, the COVID-19 pandemic is estimated to disrupt the efforts made so far to end child marriage and to result in many more girls forced into early marriages.
And, as in every statistic, there is a human face and voice behind.
Veronica Mwale (not her real name) is one such.
Aged just 15, she became pregnant in April last year, cutting prematurely her promising academic career.
She pulled out of school with epoch-defining Ordinary Level examinations just by the corner.
Her story, from there, took a familiar turn; the culprit refusing to accept responsibility, leaving her without a choice but return to her parents’ home.
She is now a single mother despite herself exhibiting juvenile facial and bodily features.
Like many in her predicament, she is too shamed to return to school despite government calls for them to resume their education in spite of the temporary hiatus.
“They are allowed to come back to school as non-formal students or formal students,” Primary and Secondary Education ministry spokesperson Taungana Ndoro told NewsDay yesterday.
“The preference is theirs. We have instructed our headmasters to go into the communities and encourage them to come back to school so that they continue with their education.
“Some of them are willing, some of them are not willing but we want them actually to be part of the school system.”
Ndoro said those who are not willing are choosing to concentrate on their marriages while in some cases, their husbands are blocking them.
“The main reason is that they are now concentrating on marriages and preparing for their own children to go to school and to a lesser extent the husbands may actually refuse because they say you are now married and therefore you can’t go to school.”
According to the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Primary and Secondary Education, over 5 000 school girls were impregnated, while at least 1 774 were forced into early marriages.
The numbers, observers say, could by now have risen and the committee chairperson Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga said the figures were shocking.
The Young Women Christian Association Zimbabwe (YWCA) said though the lockdown exposed the girls, particularly those of school-going age to all sorts of social ills, there was need to ensure the girls get more education and vocational training.
“Due to lockdown, schools and colleges were also closed,” Muchanyara Mukamuri, of the YWCA said.
“This affected the girl child who, if not gainfully engaged, ended up in other social activities.
“Sexual exploitation has been of no exception, idle minds during this lockdown have exposed women and girls to sexual abuse. Other challenges of this lockdown are child marriages which are being propelled by poverty.”
Mukamuri said one lasting solution was to ensure the young girls have some preoccupation in the form of self-help projects.
“One lasting solution to reduce early pregnancies and child marriages is to keep the girl child in school where a comprehensive sex education is given.
“At home, parent-child communication should be enhanced. The children particularly the girl child should feel free to talk to her parents about sex and sexuality issues.
“This may bridge the gap in knowledge for the youth and improve teacher-parent-child communication which is critical in reducing idleness and knowledge gap. I am highly suggesting that since health or sex education starts from Grade 4, the schools should have room for the parent or guardian to be part of the child’s education.
Pictures that circulated after schools were opened last year showed that students were also engaged in drug abuse and sexual activities, something the government needs to stand up to and educate them on the dangers of such.
“The global COVID-19 pandemic presents so many challenges in people’s lives impacting negatively. The most affected are women and girls, especially those in the global south,” Mukamuri added.
“In Zimbabwe COVID-19 came at a time when the economy was still ailing, inflation soaring and prices of basic commodities skyrocketing. This then presented challenges to women and girls in being unable to afford and access sanitary pads among other basic needs,” she said.
Speaking during the Voluntary Media Council of Zimbabwe media training on reporting minority rights, organised in partnership with the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Zimbabwe Gender Commission chief executive officer Virginia Muwanigwa said they were not quite on issues of early marriages and child pregnancies, but were engaging authorities to come up with a lasting solution.
In her presentation to Parliament, Misihairabwi-Mushonga said there was need for urgent attention to the issue of pregnant girls and those forced into marriages at an early age.
“This is shocking and the question is what we are going to do with these learners?” she said.
According to the report, most of the affected girls were those sitting for Ordinary and Advanced level.
“It was estimated that the cases had more than doubled and follow ups on these cases had not yielded positive results as parents felt that once a child is pregnant, they have no educational future.”
Women Affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni conceded that girls may have lost opportunities and have also become vulnerable to other forms of violence, assault, which include economic and emotional abuse.
MDC-T vice-president Thokozani Khupe said it was disheartening that nothing was being done to protect children from being mothers or fathers when they are not ready.
“My heart bleeds when I see a child carrying a child. We have now turned our children into mothers and fathers when they are not yet ready for that responsibility. It is high time we wake up and smell the coffee,” she said.
“What we need to do is to have conversations with adolescents to the effect that not having sex is the best way to protect them from HIV, STIs and unwanted pregnancies but at the same time, it is important that our children be protected by having access to protection through sexual reproductive and health rights
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