A primary school girl who only turned 13 this January is eight months pregnant after being interchangeably sexually abuse and raped by her uncle in his 40s, a cousin (23) and a schoolmate (15) over several months in the country’s eastern Manicaland province.
Another girl, 15-year-old Form Three student at Loreto Mission in the central Midlands province recently gave birth to a live baby in front of her stunned schoolmates and teachers, school head Phillip Mapiravana confirmed.
And yet another schoolgirl, nine-year-old recently gave birth in the country’s second largest city of Bulawayo, according to United Bulawayo Hospital chief executive Dr Harrison Rambanapasi.
“Before (this), the youngest I had seen was a 12-year-old, also a victim of sexual abuse . . . Now we have this nine-year-old . . . It’s unfortunate that we see such a case,” he said.
Babyboomers? This could have been something to celebrate if it wasn’t so bad and so sad – however you look at it.
The country has witnessed a spike – a boom if it wasn’t so tragic – in reported cases of children being abused and raped and some getting pregnant leading to child marriages, with President Emmerson Mnangagwa signing into law the Marriages Act that prohibits the marriage of minors under the age of 18 and criminalizing child marriages.
And, only last February, another 15-year-old girl died while giving birth in Masvingo province, also into public glare following the death of the 14-year-old who died giving birth at a religious shrine months earlier.
Another school girl was raped. Another girl. And another child. And another . .
Where will it end?
The above stories – obviously under-reported – are the eyes, ears, and nostrils of a hippo while most of their body is underwater.
“We need to approach and address the issue holistically and not just be content that the under-age girl “had a safe delivery!” says outspoken legislator Dr Ruth Labode.
“We need to ask: Was she supposed to go through that experience? The violence, the rape, the lasting trauma cannot be denied, the post-delivery challenges? And all this at such an early age?” she lamented.
Dr Labode, the chair of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Health, calls for urgent review of responses across the whole sexual and reproductive health rights from as early as kindergarten.
“This brings the issues of abortion – termination of pregnancy, HIV and so on among our girls – especially young girls in school. Our young girls, children, even from ECD, need to be taught that “no means no” and “yes means yes” – in all their different interpretations,” she says.
Ednah Masiwa, a veteran female rights defender from the Women’s Action Group and member of the National Termination Of Pregnancy Taskforce (TOPS), says “it is a right for woman, if she so chooses, to carry a pregnancy”.
“After all, one in four pregnancies ends in abortions,” she told a recent adolescent sexual and reproductive rights advocacy engagement with legislators in the capital.
“The issue of pro-life and pro-choice has turned into a class issue with those with the means just hop across the borders where abortions are legal,” she notes.
De Labode concurs, explaining abortion has other dimensions that warrant further interrogation.
“Where I come from, there is no debate: It’s sex, pregnancy the marriage. No two ways about it.” She points out.
Restricting young girls from accessing health services has been a barrier in efforts to raise sexual reproductive health rights and reduce an n11,5 percent national HIV prevalence especially among the 15-19 age group – where the incidences among teenage girls is six times higher than the national average.
“And we are working on developing coordinated and harmonised activities with our partners to have an impact,” she adds, explaining that without harmonisation these activities will have little effect.
Progress has been slow, she says, with unforeseen challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic still hovering above and deepening gender inequalities – and worsening the position for young girls, many of whom may not return to school.
“But there is a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel. We have a listening leader in President Mnangagwa who has been moving mountains for the rights of women and young girls,” she told The Afronews. “We are grateful to him for de-criminalising sex work and also raising the age of consent up from 16 to 18!”
While data is scarce on under-age pregnancies, researchers and other stakeholders around the country agree the numbers of actual incidents far outweigh the reported ones.
According to the 2022 Population and Housing Census (Preliminary) Report on Fertility, 16,2 percent of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were married before the legal age of 18 years, while 1 percent were married before the age of 15 years in the country!
Presenting the report findings, Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency director-general Taguma Mahonde said child marriages were more common in rural areas than urban areas.
“A total of 133 455 women aged 20-24 years, about 16,2 percent of the total were in union before attaining age of 18,” he said, adding: “The proportion was higher at 1,6 percent in rural as compared to urban at 0,3 percent.”
A total of 153 school girls dropped out of school in Manicaland alone in 2022 as a result of child marriages and teen pregnancies, according to the province’s education director Edward Shumba. 146 were secondary and seven at primary.
Tsitsi Sithole, who coordinates children at a local church in Epworth near the capital, says what is taking place is just a reflection of the moral decadence in our society.
“Our children no longer enjoy the parental care we enjoyed before as they are usually left alone from morning till dusk with parents hustling for a livelihood,” she says, explaining: “The children are then left exposed to delinquent activities and at the mercy of marauding perverts.
“We need to educate our young mothers good parenting skills because if, as parents, we fall short of our parental responsibilities, the young girls will be vulnerable to abuse, rape and get pregnant and drop out of school.”