School closures during the pandemic dramatically increased the number of pregnant girls in southern Africa

Virginia Mavhunga dropped out of school after becoming pregnant (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Inside a sparsely furnished two-room house in rural Zimbabwe, a 3-month-old baby cries. His mother, Virginia Mavhunga, spends her days making trips to the well with a bucket on her head, selling fruits and vegetables on the side of the road, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes; He has too much on his hands to offer his son, Tawananyasha. much consolation.

“That is my life now, every day”said the new mother.

Between chores in her strict routine, Virginia prepares her four younger siblings for school and helps them with homework when they return. It is these tasks that affect Virginia the most, because, at age 13, she too would rather be in school.

Virginia is part of a sharp increase in girl and adolescent pregnancies reported in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries during the pandemic. . Zimbabwe has long struggled with these types of child pregnancies and marriages. Before COVID-19 arrived, one in three girls in the country was married before the age of 18, many of them with unintended pregnancies, due to poor law enforcement, widespread poverty, and cultural practices and religious.

pregnant girls zimbabwe
Virginia Mavhunga became a mother at age 13 (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

The spread of the coronavirus intensified the situation. The country of 15 million people imposed a strict lockdown in March 2020, closing schools for six months and reopening only intermittently. Girls in particular were left idle and without access to contraceptives and clinics; the problems of impoverished families worsened.

Many girls became victims of sexual abuse or viewed marriage and pregnancy as a way out of poverty, activists and officials said. Before the pandemic, many of those girls were “relegated as a lost cause”said Taungana Ndoro, an education official in Zimbabwe.

But in the face of rising numbers, the government in August 2020 changed 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 of the girls have not returned to school, and authorities and families cite economic hardship, deeply ingrained cultural norms, and stigma and bullying.

Virginia tried to go back to school while pregnant under the policy change. Officials encouraged her and her parents. But she was the butt of jokes and gossip in a community not used to seeing a pregnant girl in a school uniform.

pregnant girls zimbabwe
Virginia Mavhunga carrying water (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

“People laughed at me. Some would point at me and ask mockingly, ‘What’s wrong with that belly?’ ”She said, looking at a photo of herself in the purple uniform. Since then, he has sold it for $ 2 to pay for baby clothes and other necessities.

Virginia said she hoped the older man who got her pregnant would marry her. Despite initial promises, he ultimately denied paternity, he said. She and her family did not follow up on a case of child rape with the police, despite Zimbabwean law setting the age of consent at 16.

Under the law, people convicted of having sex or “an indecent act” with anyone under the age of 16 can be fined or up to 10 years in jail. But most incidents never go that far. Families and officials have long tried to “sweep cases under the rug or … force minors to marry,” said police spokesman Paul Nyathi.

Families often try to negotiate with the offender, pressuring him to marry the girl and give his family cattle or money, Nyathi said. They then agree not to report the case to the police, ultimately “assisting in the abuse of the girl,” he said.

The police said they could not provide data related to cases prosecuted or reported. Nyathi said a count would be ready by the end of January, but any number is likely to be an undercount.

pregnant girls zimbabwe
Virginia Mavhunga is forced to work (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Zimbabwe has figures on pregnancies in girls who drop out of school, and while they show an alarming increase, officials say they also likely reflect an undercount, as many girls simply leave without giving a reason. In 2018, around 3,000 girls dropped out of school across the country due to pregnancies. In 2019, that number was relatively stable. In 2020, the number increased: 4,770 pregnant students dropped out of school. And in 2021 it soared: some 5,000 students became pregnant in the first two months of the year alone.according to the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Sithembiso Nyoni.

In Africa, Zimbabwe is not alone: During the pandemic, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, South Africa and Zambia “saw a sharp increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, contributing to a reported increase in pregnancies among girls and adolescents,” according to a Amnesty International report. The continent has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the world, according to the United Nations, and Zimbabwe and a handful of other nations now have laws or policies to protect girls’ education during pregnancy.

The change in Zimbabwean law gave community workers the opportunity to encourage girls to return to school. Through a group promoting girls’ rights, Tsitsi Chitongo held community meetings and knocked on doors to speak with families in remote rural areas.

pregnant girls zimbabwe
Tanaka Rwizi, right, a 16-year-old pregnant teenage mother (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

But the families’ lack of enthusiasm shook her. By November, his group had persuaded just one boy to go back to school in Murehwa, a poor rural municipality of mostly small farmers facing the consequences of drought, about 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the city. capital, Harare.

That girl only lasted a week at school, Chitongo said. She sees resistance from parents, community leaders, and teachers, as well as the girls themselves.

“Most parents are still immersed in the old way of doing things,” he said. “They prefer to marry the girl, even if she is under 18 years old. They tell us: ‘I am already struggling to take care of my family; I can’t afford an extra mouth when the girl gives birth. So children are being chased away from home ”.

Some schools also discourage the return of girls, despite the recent change, Chitongo said. “Sometimes principals tell us they don’t really understand how politics works and they refuse to admit children,” he said. “They complain that pregnant girls are not focused. Some just tell us that the school is full. “

pregnant girls zimbabwe
An instructor teaches during a training session held by the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) association to impart “life skills” (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Girls often do not know that they have the right to stay in school. They are then forced to look for work, often as domestic servants, to support their children, Chitongo said. Or they go to the men who impregnated them.

For 16-year-old Tanaka Rwizi, the backyard of a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in the poverty-stricken municipality of Mbare has taken the place of the school. There, a club for teenage mothers offers crash courses on life skills and ways they can earn a living, such as doing manicures and making soap for sale.

Tanaka dropped out of school after becoming pregnant early last year. He lives with his unemployed uncle in a single room divided by a curtain. Every Thursday she meets with other girls for the clinic program. It started in 2019 for a handful of participants, but demand grew during the pandemic, said Grace Mavhezha of Doctors Without Borders. More than 300 girls have come to the program since COVID-19 arrived.

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

Many also set their sights on marriage to survive. Tanaka said the 20-year-old man who got her pregnant promised to marry her as soon as she turned 18, the youngest allowed by Zimbabwean law.

pregnant girls zimbabwe
A teenage mother watches a training session held by the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) association (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

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

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

“Girls are prohibited from taking contraceptives due to traditional myths our parents have, that girls cannot have sex until they are 20 years old or married.”said Yvette Kanenungo, a 20-year-old clinic volunteer. “The truth is that girls are already having sex, but they cannot take contraceptives freely because of the decree not to have sex before marriage at home.”

For Virginia, travel restrictions meant she was stuck at her home in Murehwa after visiting her parents at her hometown school last year. Instead, he enrolled in a local school but spent little time there due to intermittent closings.

Initially, Virginia’s parents, trying to support the family by selecting items from the market for sale and preparing their drought-damaged land for regrowth, wanted to start a child rape case against the older man who got her pregnant. But they gave up when they released him on bail and said they now expect him to take care of the baby.

pregnant girls zimbabwe
Virginia Mavhunga plays with her son at their rural home in Murehwa (AP Photo / Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi)

Virginia’s father ignored the neighbors’ advice for his daughter to leave home. Her mother wanted to protect her, and that included keeping her away from school and bullying.

However, Virginia vows to go back to school one day. He misses his classes, his classmates. She wants to graduate and be accepted into a university, so she can earn a degree and restore her parents’ faith in her by building them a bigger house.

“I’d rather go back to school than get married,” he said. “I am not afraid to go back to school once my son is older. They may laugh at me now, but I spend all my free time and weekends reading and catching up ”.

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

(With information from AP)


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