Breaking Taboos: Brave women from some of Zimbabwe’s apostolic sects seek medical services in secret

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By Thandiwe Garusa

“I cannot let my children die because of a religion.”

Mavis Gunyana (not real name) from a village in Gutu, narrated how hard it is for women of the apostolic sect to get medical services for their children.

For years, members of some apostolic sects in Zimbabwe have been denied access to medical services due to their religious beliefs.

Some apostolic churches forbid members from seeking medical attention and instead, they rely solely on prayer for healing.

In what Gunyana calls heartbreaking and devastating, some families lost all their children to deadly diseases like measles.

Gunyana is one of the brave women from this sect who have decided to secretly seek medical services with the help of village health workers.

These women who usually suffer from high rates of maternal and infant mortality have realized the importance of taking care of their health and that of their children, despite religious beliefs.

They do it privately to avoid judgment from church members and potential ostracism that could result from seeking medical help.

Speaking to this publication during a community-based outreach under the Health Resilience Fund (HRF), an initiative from the government and UNICEF, Gunyana explained how difficult it is for women from her church to get routine vaccines for children.

Gunyana said sometimes they miss outreach programs or the vaccines get finished before they can get them.

“This is my second time coming with my child for vaccination. My child was supposed to get BCG three months ago but I was unfortunate and did not make it to the venue and I could not get it.

Gunyana considers herself lucky because her husband allows her to take the children for medication however the in-laws do not allow that.

“Every time I come for medical services I have to sneak out. My husband does not have a problem with it but his parents do not believe in medication and right now they think I have gone to the shops.

“I do not want my child to die because of a religion.  We have seen children dying and I will continue taking my children for vaccination,” Gunyana said.

These brave women have not only defied the teachings of their church but also challenged religious beliefs that prevented them from accessing medical services and are paving the way for more women to seek healthcare services.

“It is hard for women who were born in this church to believe in seeking medication but it is good for women and their children,” Gunyana added.

The shift in behavior comes as a result of growing awareness and mobilisation from village health workers on the importance of seeking healthcare services.

Anna Mercy Nevanji (pictured above), a village health worker said mobilisation is really helping and some women end up getting convinced to take medication for themselves and their children.

The village health workers use a combination of education, persuasion, and trust-building to convince the women that medical treatment can complement their spiritual practices without conflicting with them.

The village health workers meet these women in private locations as it is taboo to be seen talking to them.

“Usually these women do gardening and I go to their houses pretending to buy vegetables, that is when I give them family planning pills and if there are any outreach programs coming, that is when I tell them the dates and places,” Nevanji said.

However, Nevanji also said such work does not come without risks.

In addition to a lack of resources, they also face harassment and violence from some members of the apostolic sects.

“If they see you coming, especially wearing the village health workers’ uniform, they will block you from entering their homesteads. I was once chased away with stones, they do not want to hear anything about medication.

“Some of them will only take pills when you bring them and they do not want to be seen at clinics,” Nevanji said

Despite these challenges, the village health workers continue to persevere and make a difference to save lives and change mindsets.

With their grassroots efforts, these workers are gradually helping to build a bridge between traditional beliefs and modern healthcare.

However, in some cases, they locate families in need of emergency medical conditions and fail to persuade them to go for help.

“One lady in our village, who is a sixth wife in a polygamy of seven wives, approached me for HIV testing and she was positive, I tried to convince the whole family to get tested but I failed.

“It is heartbreaking to know that the whole family including children may be all HIV positive but cannot get medical assistance,” Nevanji added.

Nevanji also said these apostolic sect members can even go to the extent of conducting unprofessional surgeries on their own.

“Some of these apostolic members were chased away from this area after many death incidents while they were illegally treating accident victims using household needles, plastering injuries with flour and other things, they were eventually expelled from this area after many people died whilst being treated,” Nevanji said.

With the continuous engagement and support of the government and UNICEF, more women in the apostolic sect can access medical services without fear of discrimination and being exposed to their church members.

Through these efforts, more women are able to make informed decisions about their health and that of their families.

The HRF initiative meant to improve health care in Zimbabwe with special emphasis on women, newborns, children and adolescents, youths, and health emergencies is funded by the European Union, GAVI the Vaccine Alliance and the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom.