As more girls are pregnant, Zimbabwe is pushing to return to school

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Virginia Mavhunga, a 13-year-old teenage mother, runs after customers while selling fruit and vegetables by the roadside in Murehwa, 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, on Friday, December 10, 2021. Virginia dropped out of school after becoming pregnant and being the subject of gossip and dismay in a society that has not yet become accustomed to the sight of a pregnant girl in school uniform. (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

AP

Inside a sparsely furnished two-bedroom home in rural Zimbabwe, a 3-month-old baby is crying. His mother, Virginia Mavhunga, spends her days on trips to the well with a bucket on her head, selling fruit and vegetables by the roadside, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes – she has too much on her hands to offer her child, Tawananyasha, much comfort.

“It’s my life now, every day,” said the new mother.

Between duties in her tight routine, Virginia prepares her four younger siblings for school and helps them with homework when they return. It is these tasks that hit Virginia the hardest – because at the age of 13 she would also rather go to school.

Virginia is part of a steep rise in pregnancies among girls and teens reported in Zimbabwe and other South 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 got married before the age of 18, many with unplanned pregnancies due to lax law enforcement, widespread poverty and cultural and religious practices.

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This story is part of a years-long series on how the pandemic affects women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.

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The spread of coronavirus exacerbated the situation. The country of 15 million people introduced a strict closure in March 2020, closed schools for six months and reopened them only at intervals. In particular, girls were left unemployed and excluded from access to contraception and clinics; the problems of poor families worsened.

Many girls fell victim to sexual abuse or saw marriage and pregnancy as a way out of poverty, lawyers and officials said. Before the pandemic, many of such girls were “banished as a lost cause,” said Taungana Ndoro, an education official in Zimbabwe.

However, in the face of rising numbers, in August 2020 the government amended a law that had long banned pregnant students from schools. Activists and authorities hailed the move as a significant step in the developing nation, but so far the new policy has largely failed. Most girls have not returned to school, and authorities and families cite financial difficulties, deep-seated cultural norms, and stigma and bullying in the classroom.

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The AP generally does not mention victims of sexual abuse without consent. For this story, the girls and their families have agreed to be identified and have their names published, in accordance with their desire to have their stories told.

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Virginia tried to return to school while pregnant during the police change. Officials encouraged her and her parents. But she was the butt of jokes and the object of gossip in a society not used to seeing a pregnant girl in school uniform.

“People would laugh at me. Some would point and ask in ridicule, ‘What’s up with that belly?'” She said, looking at a picture of herself in the purple uniform. She has since sold it for $ 2 to pay for the baby’s clothes and other needs.

Virginia said she had hoped the older man who fertilized her would marry her. Despite initial promises, he eventually denied paternity, she said. She and her family did not follow up on a statutory rape case with the police, despite Zimbabwean law setting the minimum age at 16.

By law, people convicted of sexual intercourse or “an indecent act” with someone under the age of 16 can face a fine or up to 10 years in prison. But most incidents never get that far. Families and officials have long tried to “sweep the cases under the rug or … force the minor into marriage,” said police spokesman Paul Nyathi.

Families often try to negotiate with the perpetrator and pressure him to marry the girl and give her family cattle or money, Nyathi said. Then they agree not to report the case to the police – ultimately “assisting in the abuse of the girl,” he said.

Police said they could not provide data related to prosecuted or reported cases. Nyathi said a statement would be ready by the end of January – but all figures are likely to underestimate.

Zimbabwe has figures on pregnancies among girls dropping out of school – and although they are showing an alarming increase, officials say they probably also reflect an undercount, as many girls simply go without giving a reason.

In 2018, about 3,000 girls dropped out of school nationwide due to pregnancies. In 2019, this figure remained relatively stable. In 2020, the number increased: 4,770 pregnant students left school.

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

Across Africa, Zimbabwe is not alone: ​​during the pandemic, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, South Africa and Zambia “all recorded a sharp increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, which has contributed to a reported increase in pregnancies among young people and young girls, “according to an Amnesty International report. According to the UN, the continent has one of the highest pregnancy rates among young people in the world, and Zimbabwe and a handful of other nations now have laws or policies to protect girls’ education while pregnant.

Zimbabwe’s law change allowed community workers to encourage girls to return to school. Through a group that promotes girls’ rights, Tsitsi Chitongo held community meetings and knocked on doors to talk to families in remote rural areas.

But the lack of enthusiasm from the families shook her. In November, her group had persuaded only one child to return to school in Murehwa – a poor rural area with mostly small farmers dealing with the fallout from drought, about 80 kilometers from the capital Harare.

That girl only lasted a week in school, Chitongo said. She sees opposition from parents, community leaders and teachers – in addition to the girls themselves.

“Most parents are still permeated by the old way of doing things,” she said. “They prefer to have the child married, even if she is under 18. They tell us: ‘I’m already struggling to take care of my family; I can not afford an extra mouth when the girl gives birth.’ So children are chased away from home «.

Some schools also discourage girls from returning despite the recent change, Chitongo said.

“Sometimes principals tell us they don’t quite understand how the policy works and they refuse to admit the kids,” she said. “They complain that pregnant girls are not focused. Some simply tell us that school is full.”

Often, girls are not aware that they have the right to stay in school. They are then forced to find work, often as maids, to support their children, Chitongo said. Or they go to the men who have fertilized them.

For 16-year-old Tanaka Rwizi, the backyard of a Médecins Sans Frontières clinic in the poor Mbare township has taken the place of the school. There, a club for teenage mothers offers crash courses on life skills and ways they can make a living, such as giving manicures and making soap for sale.

Tanaka dropped out of school after becoming pregnant early last year. She lives with her unemployed uncle in a single room separated by a curtain. 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 Mavhezha of Médecins Sans Frontières. More than 300 girls have joined the program since COVID-19 hit.

Most of the girls choose the program over the formal school because they need a skill that can help them “quickly make some money,” Mavhezha said. “There is a lot of poverty; they must take care of their children. “

Many also turn their attention to marriage in order to survive. Tanaka said the 20-year-old man who fertilized her promised to marry her as soon as she turned 18 – the youngest allowed in Zimbabwean law.

“I can not wait that long,” Tanaka said. She planned to go to him immediately after the birth.

The clinic also offers contraception. However, travel restrictions exclude many young people from such facilities and cut off access to not only contraception but to counseling. Clinic workers say many young people need such services because of conservative parents who equate contraception with prostitution. Proposals to supply contraception in schools have been met with outrage in this conservative and deeply religious country.

“Girls are forbidden to take contraception because of traditional myths that our parents have about girls not being able to have sex until they are in their 20s or married,” said Yvette Kanenungo, a 20-year-old clinic volunteer. “The truth is that girls already have sex, but they can not freely take contraception because of the decree on non-sex before marriage at home.”

For Virginia, the travel restrictions meant she was stuck at home in Murehwa after visiting her parents from her city school last year. She instead enrolled in a local school but spent some time there due to periodic closures.

First, Virginia’s parents – who are trying to support the family by sorting market items for sale and getting their drought-damaged land ready to grow again – wanted to file a statutory rape case against the elderly man who begged her. But they gave up when he was released on bail and said they now hope he will take care of the child.

Virginia’s father ignored advice from neighbors to get his daughter to leave home. Her mother wanted to protect her, and that included keeping her out of school and away from harassment.

Virginia, however, promises to return to school one day. She misses her hours, her peers. She wants to graduate and be admitted to a university so she can get an exam and pay her parents’ faith in her back by building them a bigger home.

“I’d rather go back to school than get married,” she said. “I’m not afraid to go back to school when my child has grown up. They may be laughing at me now, but I dedicate all my free time and weekends to reading and following along.

“This is not the end of the road, just a forced break.”

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This story is part of a years-long series on how the pandemic affects women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The AP series is funded by the European Journalism Center’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. AP is responsible for all content.

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Watch the full series on how the pandemic affects women in Africa: https://apnews.com/hub/women-the-eyes-of-africa

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