Zimbabwe: Education Cannot Wait – Protecting Young Adolescent Girls From Sexual Exploitation

In a matter of months, coronavirus has upended the lives of children and families across the globe. Quarantine efforts such as school closures, while considered necessary to contain the spread of coronavirus have disputed children’s routines and support systems.

The control measure to contain the spread of Covid-19 have also impacted on gender specific needs and vulnerabilities of women and girls increasing the risk of sexual exploitation, abuse and child marriage.

At Harare Hospital- one of the country’s largest referral hospitals, seven- month pregnant Miriam Edzai (14 years old) strides out of the large glass doors as her small body balances her bulging belly. She has been discharged from the maternity wards where she was admitted overnight for phantom labour contractions.

Her mother, Netsai Chiwetu (35 years old) says they brought her the previous day when she seemed to be experiencing labour contractions and a high blood pressure.

“Because of her age and the size of her body, you have to be extra caution considering that she is approaching her final trimester,” Chiwetu said.

Fourteen-year old Miriam according to her mother was impregnated by elder boys in their community, yet the parents of the perpetrators are refusing to take responsibility for their children’s actions.

“She was impregnated by two older boys; one is 18 and the other is 19 years old both of them are friends. The boys would lure her to their house when I was at work. They would show her porn-videos in order to excite her and eventually sleep with her.”

Chiwetu said at first, she did not suspect that her daughter was pregnant because she didn’t even know that her child was sexually active.

“She was always tired and sleepy. Then her feet started to swell. I took her to the local clinic for a check-up and we discovered that she was four months pregnant, I interrogated her on who was responsible, she told me of what the two boys were doing to her,” Chiwetu said.

Chiwetu said she has tried to address the matter with the parents of the two boys but they are refusing to take responsibility.

A Save the Children, call to action to prioritise children in the Covid-19 response in Zimbabwe, reports that being away for the protective environment offered by schools, exposes children especially girls to multiple forms of abuse, especially sexual abuse and exploitation, early child marriage and child labour.

Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a community- based women and girls rights organisation noted that as a result of the lockdown the issues of unplanned pregnancies have been increasing. The risks of the outcome of the adolescent pregnancy impact also on maternal mortality.

“As a result of the closure of schools due to Covid-19, adolescent girls had started to take part in premature sexual activities as they were idle. Unplanned pregnancies among young girls in low-income communities have been increasing as girls fail to access sexual reproductive health services as a result of their age and in some cases cultural and religious beliefs,” Florence Mutake, Shamwari Yemwanasikana, programs coordinator, said.

The Ministry of Primary and Education statistics revealed that 12.5 % of girls dropping out of school are due to marriage or pregnancy reasons.

Recent reports from Manicaland provincial education department, revealed that over 400 girls from four districts in Manicaland have dropped out of school as a result of pregnancy, marriage, financial challenges and illness.

The closure of schools has impacted on the gains made by the country to reduce teenage pregnancy rates from 27 % to 12 % this year.

Plan International’s Living Under Lockdown, reports that lockdown measures in response to Covid-19 have closed schools around the world, leaving an estimated 1.54 billion young people out of school, fewer young people receiving vital Comprehensive Sexuality Education.

According to Plan International, the disruption of schools, health services and community centres, new ways of providing information and support to adolescents and young people need to be established.