Home » Sports » Zimbabwe: Keeping Girls in School Ensures Prosperity

At the age of 20, Brenda Ndlovu can only imagine the inside of a classroom. Her parents' church does not encourage them to send girls to schools, rather priming them to be good wives, a role generally set to the preferences of male congregates. Brenda was married off within the denomination at 15, becoming the most junior of many wives. "I was now living a life of an adult in a polygamous relationship. I was afraid that the nature of the relationship made me vulnerable to HIV and STI infections," Brenda said.

"The man whom I got married to could not afford to take care of us all. We had to scramble for wares with the other wives," she said. Last year, social workers engaged Brenda in her native Matobo and spoke to her on the pitfalls of early marriage.

She left her "matrimonial home" and went to stay with her grandmother who had been against the marriage from the onset. The social workers she had engaged assisted her to start an income-generating project which has been sustaining her since then.

Many young girls like Brenda are married off by elders without the least regard for their own opinion. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) statistics, 27,2 percent of 15-19 year old girls in rural Zimbabwe have already started having children.

Some never come around to press on with their aspirations once tied down to home life. With help, Ndhlovu hopes to find a job that allows her to pursue private lessons so she can revive her belated academic life. The World Population Day was recently commemorated in Harare under the theme, "Investing in Teenage Girls".

"Women and girls are Africa's greatest untapped resource, and it is they, not diamonds or oil and minerals, that will be foundation for solid, sustainable and equitable progress." These words by Mozambique's former President Joachim Chisano concurred with much of the deliberations on the day. Some of the girls had peculiar heart-warming stories of how their lives almost got disrupted by early marriage.

Edith Banda (19), found herself out of school as her aging father could not continue paying her tuition fees. Edith's father had a lot of children from different mothers to take care of and with a number of male siblings, she was clearly not a priority.

Frustrated, she saw marriage as the only way out. "When I was on the verge of eloping, I met Sista2Sista mentor Makaite Madyise. That was shortly after I left school. She told me not to lose hope as there were ways I could continue going to school," Banda said.

"She arranged to meet with my parents, and advised my mother to venture into gardening." Edith and her mother were fortunate enough to raise her tuition fees from market gardening. In 2015, she sat for her O-Level examinations and came out with flying colours. She has vowed to continue with her education and is taking exams in Literature in English and Accounting this year.

"I want to become a policewoman because I want protect my siblings and other women from abuse," said Edith. In a bid to reduce these early marriages in rural areas, the UNFPA ,FACT and other organizations teamed up the form a Women's Club called the Sista2Sista Club.

The clubs are "girls only" spaces for vulnerable adolescent girls. In these groups, they get to speak with mentors and peers about their challenges as well as receiving counselling. Namatai (not her real name) is a beneficiary of the initiative. A family emergency forced her out of school.

The disruption was of little concern to her family whose devotion does not encourage female education. "When I was 11, my sister fell sick. I had to leave school in Richmond for a month to look after her. At our church we do not go to hospital, we go to a shrine called Chitsidzo. People stay there until they are discharged," Namatai said.

Namatai stayed at the shrine for a month and when she went back to school it was examination time. She failed her exam and her disappointed parents pulled her out of school. "My brother in-law started asking my father for my hand in marriage, to which I refused. My father started defaulting paying my fees proclaiming that he does not have money to pay fees for a child who disobeys church rules," she said.

Her father was reacting to her refusal to get married. She attributes her bold stance against the marriage to the Sistah2Sistah Program. "My mentor at Sista2Sistah was educating us on the importance of education and I felt what my brother in-law was asking me was impossible," she said. Her Sista2Sista mentor intervened and her parents reluctantly allowed her to continue with school.

Her father, however, refused to pay for her school fees and she has since been going to school through the Basic Education Assistance Module(BEAM). Now in Form 1, she hopes to be a doctor one day. According research, chances of early marriages are reduced the more female students progress with education. UNFPA says for every one 15-19 year old girl who gets pregnant in secondary school, there are two 15-19 year old girls who only received primary school education.

Felistas Gondo (35), a child care worker with the Sista2Sista programme works with young girls in Hurungwe, Mashonaland West. She attributes early child marriages to an array of challenges. "Cultural beliefs are some of the driving factors towards early child marriages, we have some religious sects that still encourage them

"The worst part is that they will be exposed to polygamous settings exposing them to abuse and possible diseases," Gondo said. "Poverty is also a contributing factor, young girls cornered by the pressures of life end up assuming that getting married is a way of escaping poverty," she added. She mentors 75 girls in her area.

In agreement was Makaita Madyise (45) who started working with girls in Richmond, Rural Makonde District in 2013. She oversees eight Sista2Sista groups with over 200 girls. Madyise says economic hardships are to blame for early marriages. "Lack of school fees is a major factor in my area, if a girl drops out of school her chances of getting married are high," Madyise said.

She also said bereavement is also a cause of early marriages when a child loses a breadwinner they sometimes fail to continue with their studies and they find themselves out of school. UNFPA communications officer Victoria Walshe, who has been working closely with young girls in rural Zimbabwe, said there is still need for awareness to be raised on the importance of education to the girl child.

"I interacted a lot with these girls during the time we were taking images for their photo exhibition and their stories inspired me," she said. She added that sometimes young girls with potential do not get to realize their dream because they would have gotten into marriage too early. "Marriage comes with responsibility and sometimes it inhibits chances of growth if the participant is not yet psychologically ready for it," she said.

Speaking at on the sidelines of World Population Day Child president, Tinaye Mbavare suggested that increased efforts in youth engagement in rural areas can reduce early marriages.

"There is lack of funding on youth projects in the country generally and this makes it difficult for innovative ideas to gather momentum," she said. She also added that: "The society also needs to be concientised that not every child is academically gifted. "There is need for talent identification at early ages so that the youth focus on activities they are proficient in."

Mbavare said that there is need for continued efforts in creating awareness in urban and rural settings to ensure people understand that education is every child's right irrespective of gender or technical ability. The civil society leaders have also been speaking out against early marriages, highlighting the dire consequences which may be encountered by the participants in these premature unions.

Nyaradzai Gumbonzvanda, an International Human Rights Lawyer who has been one of the most audible voices speaking against early child marriages, delivered a speech at the World Population Day commemorations in which she pleaded with the Zimbabwean populace to honour the girl child's right to education.

"We can never have a prosperous Zimbabwe which is at peace with itself if its daughters are bleeding. "It is unacceptable that teenage girls can live a life where they do not have their basic needs and rights." She emphasised that the right to education is one of the most important rights which should be enjoyed by every child in the world.

Source: The Herald