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Zimbabwe: Girls vulnerable as COVID-19 drives child marriages (Gender Links)

Fourteen-year-old Grace Ndlovu earned a living by selling wild fruits and Mopani worms to motorists. But she aspired to be a scientist, and to study chemistry in order to make drugs and medicine to heal people—and to give to clinics short of supplies.

She knew she could achieve her dream because her school fees were being paid by a local organization, and her teacher told her that she could be anything she wanted.

Her greatest joy came when she passed her grade seven examinations and was accepted by Whitewater Secondary School in Matobo district, Matabeleland South. A uniform and stationary were delivered and the organization paid for her fees. Her primary school teacher bid her farewell and wished her luck. Even her mother was happy. She got to wear brand new school shoes for the first time when she started her first term at secondary school.

But Ms. Ndlovu’s joy was short-lived. A nationwide lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close before she even sat her first secondary school exams.

COVID-19 has upended the lives of many children and their families, with lockdowns resulting in countrywide school closures, affecting children’s routines and support systems. In addition, measures that do not account for the gender-specific needs and vulnerabilities of young women and girls may increase their risk of sexual exploitation, including child marriage.

While waiting for the lockdown to be over, plans were made for Ms. Ndlovu to be married off to a local church leader, together with another girl in the area. A bride price was paid and her struggling father was delighted that he had one less mouth to feed.

But alert traditional leaders in the community came to the rescue of the girls and the marriages were stopped.

Today, Ms. Ndlovu has a second chance at a career in chemistry. For now, she listens to radio lessons organized by UNICEF with her young brothers and helps them do their homework.

But not all child brides are as lucky as Ms. Ndlovu. Many young girls are cut off from school due to the current pandemic, and school is a place of refuge for many young people.

In addition, poverty has worsened and some families choose to marry off their daughters to save them from hunger and other economic woes brought by the pandemic.

Children’s rights experts and activists say the pandemic could reverse some of the gains earned by keeping girls in school and ensuring they are protected from social vices such as child marriage. Zimbabwe outlawed child marriages in 2016.

Priscilla Misihairambwi Mushonga is a girl child advocate and parliamentary portfolio chairperson on education. She says the rate of child marriages has been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic, as many more girls are being married off, though few marriages are reported. She adds that teen pregnancies are also on the rise.

She explains: “When schools are open, pupils are close to their teachers, who do not only teach them math, history, and other such subjects, but are also there to counsel them and to give them the right sex education.”

She worries about child brides being robbed of their future, saying: “Teachers and the rest of the school community are nowhere near at such a time to notice if a member of the class is missing so that they investigate—so many child marriages will happen successfully and quietly.”

The lockdown is freezing livelihoods for many rural households, and many homes have little to eat. So lobola, or dowry, is a temptation, as it reduces the number of mouths that a family has to feed. Like Ms. Ndlovu’s family, many people choose to give up their daughters, no matter how bright their futures may be.

Nomzamo Sibindi is a women’s development coordinator in Matobo District. She is calling for the government to implement gender-sensitive COVID-19 response measures and to channel more resources into sexual and reproductive health, which she says is often overlooked during pandemics.

A UNICEF report released in April projected that the pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages globally over the next decade.

This story was adapted from an article originally written by Andile Tshuma and published by Gender Links, titled “Girls vulnerable as COVID-19 drives child marriages.” To read the full story, go to: https://genderlinks.org.za/news/girls-future-at-stake-as-covid-19-drought-drive-child-marriages/ [1]

Photo: A Malawian school participating in a Farm Radio International project. Credit: Farm Radio International