By Mary Taruvinga
AT the age of 17, Chipo Moyo* is already a mother of two after enduring two failed marriages.
Chipo’s family lives in Mashonaland East’s Chihota area where deep levels of poverty have seen young girls being forced into early marriages or falling prey to men who use financial muscle to lure them into sexual relationships.
Chihota, which is located about 80 kilometres from Harare in Marondera district, is a farming community where the majority of people survive on subsistence agriculture and providing seasonal labour at commercial farms around the area.
Chipo, who hails from Chawapiwa Village, was raised by her unemployed mother after her father died when she was one and a half years old.
The young mother had her first child at the age of 15 and her ‘husband’ fled to South Africa, leaving her to raise the newborn baby on her own.
Barely a year later Chipo had given birth to her second born after she was lured into a relationship by another man, who promised her marriage before dumping her soon after giving birth.
“My father died when I was only one and a half years old,” she said. “I fell pregnant in 2021 and I was pregnant again the following year.
“My first child’s father, who was 19 years old when he made me pregnant fled to South Africa, but is back in Chihota and is not taking care of his child.”
The father of her second born is 23 years old and the two stayed as husband and wife for only six months.
Chipo said she was forced to flee from her second husband’s home after he became abusive.
Her mother said they did not report the man, who made her daughter pregnant at the age of 15 because they wanted to avoid conflict in the community.
Zimbabwe’s age of consent is 16, but activists are pushing it to be reviewed to 18 years to stop the sexual exploitation of young girls like Chipo.
Sexual exploitation rampant
Investigations by NewZimbabwe.com in partnership with the Information for Development Trust, a non-profit organisation supporting investigative journalism in Zimbabwe and southern Africa revealed that sexual exploitation of girls was common in Chihota.
Many young girls in the area are forced into premature motherhood and early marriages by poverty and religious beliefs that are prevalent in Mashonaland East province.
According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) preliminary 2022 census report on fertility, 133 455 women aged between 20 and 24 years, representing 16.2 percent of the total, were married before attaining the age of 18.
The proportion was higher at 22.7 percent in rural areas as compared to 7.2 percent in urban areas, the report said.
ZimStat’s 2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey revealed that 45.1 percent of girls in Mashonaland East get married before they turn 18.
Shamwari Yemwanasikana, a Harare-based community-based organisation that operates in Chihota, demonstrated how cases of abuse against young girls were prevalent in the area because of the skewed distribution of wealth in interviews with this publication.
The organisation said men from well-up families that have agricultural plots tend to take advantage of girls from poor families by luring them into sexual relationships and early marriages.
“The girls do not have power to make conscious decisions as they would need the money to sustain themselves.
“This has been the case in many sexual abuse and child marriage cases,” said Ekenia Chifamba, the Shamwari Yemwanasikana founding executive director.
“The society does not value education for a girl child.
“It is not a priority for parents to send their girl children to school, hence girls are groomed for early marriages, and having girls at home and in the community streets all the time without doing anything has made them vulnerable to abuse.
“Religious and cultural beliefs and norms play a part as well.
“There are many apostolic churches, which are not regulated who practice child marriages and traditional practices, which support some cases of child abuse and child marriages.”
Sanctuary for sexual abuse victims
The organisation has since set up a shelter in Chihota to offer psychosocial support to victims of sexual abuse, gender-based violence and those who escape from forced marriages.
As of August 2023, the shelter was assisting 13 girls and five of them were child brides that were rescued from abusive marriages while the other eight are victims of sexual abuse.
The number of girls at the shelter varies at any given time depending on cases that are identified.
Shamwari Yemwanasikana, which works closely with the department of social development in the Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare ministry, offers counselling services, vocational training courses and helps the girls start income-generating projects at the Chihota centre.
The department of social development also seconds professional counsellors to the centre from time to time and the girls
Chifamba said the shelter also seeks to address the mental and emotional well-being of the girls to aid their full recovery from abuse and the trauma caused by early marriages.
An 11 year-old girl at the shelter said she ran away from home because her parents were always fighting and she was now contemplating getting married.
“I have been out of school for three years and sometimes I think getting married will solve my problems,” said the girl, who cannot be identified for ethical reasons.
Moleen Chiyanike, the Shamwari Yemwanasikana area coordinator for Chihota, said many girls in the community were made to believe that marriage was the only escape route from poverty.
“Many girls think that they can escape poverty by getting married, but they don’t know that they will be destroying their future,” Chiyanike said.
“Some men in this area are also supplying school children with drugs and illicit brews so that they can take advantage of the girls.
“At one of the schools we get at least 15 cases of girls, who elope to boyfriends every school term.”
She said the organisation was overwhelmed by the number of abused girls that need its help so much that most of the victims never get assistance when they need it the most.
Chifamba said although they try to assist some of the victims of abuse to report their cases to the police, at times families do not cooperate and prefer to deal with the issues on their own.
“At times we find that some police stations lack urgency in dealing with these issues and it could be due to lack of resources,” she said.
“For example there are times where we report cases, but police will either not have fuel or a vehicle to go and arrest the offender.
“There is also no longer sense of community in today’s society, which used to help in dealing with such vices.
“For example in Bindura there was an elderly man who was staying with two minor girls and people would see them doing chores, only for them to start raising the alarm when one of them died while giving birth.”
Shamwari Yemwanasikana also assisted Chipo to report her first “husband” to the police for impregnating a minor, but he fled and the case was never pursued.
Statistics obtained from the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) show that there were 315 cases of men that were arrested for having sexual intercourse in Mashonaland East in the period January to August this year.
Two hundred and seventy seven were arrested for raping juveniles during the same period and 98 were nabbed for raping adults.
ZRP spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi said tackling the scourge of child marriages needed a holistic approach.
“We have always been clear that anyone who falls in love with a child under the age of 16 years can be arrested and the law has been very specific on that,” Nyathi said.
“Sometimes the so-called child marriages are done through the coordination of these families.
“So it’s something that (needs) awareness campaigns, not by police only, but all the sectors of the society.
Older men luring girls
Chawapiwa Village head Isaac Manzira, who said he was aware of Chipo’s case, described the rampant sexual exploitation of young girls in his area as disheartening.
Manzira said girls from poor families were easily lured into exploitative romantic liaisons by older men, who make some money through market gardening projects or those who work in farms around the area.
“Many families here cannot afford to send their children to school and that is how girls end up getting married at a young age,” he said. “They will be trying to escape poverty.
“Our wish is to see every school-going age child remaining at school. We are appealing for scholarships and other programmes that will keep our girls at schools.”
Zimbabwe has seen an upsurge in teen pregnancies in recent years largely because of deepening poverty amid revelations by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) that 350 000 girls aged between 10 and 19 fell pregnant between 2019 and 2022.
According to findings of a National Assessment of Adolescent Pregnancies in Zimbabwe (2023) released in June funded by the United Nations, of the 1.7 million antenatal care bookings recorded between 2019 and 2022, 358 000 were of girls aged between 10 and 19.
Blessing Nyagumbo, a UNFPA adolescent sexual reproductive health specialist, said the study identified various causes of teen pregnancies, which in most cases forced into early marriages.
“(The causes) include adolescents’ limited knowledge on sexuality, poverty, limited parent to child communication, early sexual debuts among adolescents themselves and cross generational (with elderly men) and cultural and religious practices such as marrying off girls at very tender ages,” Nyagumbo said.
Matabeleland and Mashonaland provinces have the highest adolescent birth rates (ABR) in Zimbabwe.
ABR is the annual number of births to women aged 15 to 19 years per 1 000 women in that age group. UNPFA statistics indicate that the ABR in rural areas is 136 against 162 in urban areas across provinces.
Mashonaland East’s ABR is 89, which is significantly lower than the worst affected province Matabeleland North at 161, but the situation is still worrisome for girl child advocates.
Apart from the Chihota shelter, Shamwari Yemwanasikana has facilities in Seke and Murehwa, also in Mashonaland East, which help victims of sexual exploitation.
“To complement the half-way shelter in Chihota, Shamwari Yemwanasikana has a one stop centre in Seke,” Chifamba said.
“It is a safe space for victims of abuse, child marriages and gender based violence.
“We provide shelter to girls and provide the same services as the shelter in Chihota.
“Shamwari Yemwanasikana also has an economic empowerment and demonstration centre in Murehwa whose focus is mainly on training the same victims on economic empowerment and to give them opportunities to do their own income generating projects.
“The Chihota shelter offers comprehensive support to the girls from psychosocial assistance to economic empowerment, which uses the same model as the Seke centre in protecting and empowering vulnerable girls.”
Zimbabwe’s teen pregnancies crisis
The National Assessment of Adolescent Pregnancies in Zimbabwe report said during the period under review, teens that fell pregnant comprised of 10 to 14 year olds that constituted 0.9 percent with 15 to 19 year olds making up 41.2 percent.
There was also a significant proportion of pregnancy prevalence between religions with those who families were from protestant churches making up 14, 5 percent, Pentecostal (15.8 percent), apostolic (31.5 percent) and other (classified as African religion, muslim and no religion) taking up 34.5 percent, the report says.
The median age for sexual debut was found to be 16 years and the middle (50 percent) was between 15 and 17 years.
About 31 percent of the girls that were surveyed reported having had forced sex on their first sexual encounter.
Among the girls that responded to a question on whether they reported the sexual abuse to poll, 85 percent said they did with 74 percent of them reporting that the responsible authorities did not take action, 24 percent reported that court cases were pending, withdrawn or dropped by the police for insufficient evidence.
Only two percent said their abusers had been prosecuted, the report added.
For a long time public health advocates in Zimbabwe have been pushing the government to give adolescents access to reproductive health services and education to avoid more girls finding themselves in Chipo’s position.
*Name changed to protect the victim.