It was COVID-19 that ensured that Nancy (not her real name)’s second year as a teenager would also be the first year of her married life.
BY CLIFF CHIDUKU
Up to the time lockdown was eased, her parents, who live at a farm in Mhondoro-Ngezi in Mashonaland West province, had been forced to scrounge for a living. They had been surviving by scavenging for firewood to sell in Chegutu town, but their trade was cut short, condemning the family to poverty.
So when Mvukwe (65), a local businessman, approached her family to ask for the 14-year-old’s hand in marriage, they could not think twice, lest their potential son-in-law looked elsewhere.
Nancy could have none of it. She was still young to navigate the rough terrain of marriage, a polygamous one for that matter, she pleaded, but her pleas fell on deaf ears.
“We did not want her to be married at that age, but because of circumstances, we had to sit her down and spell it out to her,” Nancy’s father told NewsDay recently.
“The fact that we knew how ‘rich’ Mvukwe was; we knew our daughter was guaranteed a decent life. We are also assured of a ‘bailout’ during this crisis time,” added the 54-year-old father of nine, and a member of Johanne Marange apostolic sect.
Incessant droughts, owing to climate change have condemned many a family, especially in the rural communities to poverty. Zimbabwe’s poor performing economy — ravaging inflation, soaring prices and shortage of basic commodities — have worsened the plight of many.
With the coronavirus-induced lockdown freezing their source of livelihoods, there was nothing to eat. Nancy’s parents could not afford another mouth at the table, so Nancy had to be sacrificed.
“The decision to let go of my daughter was not an easy one, but a choice in the collective interest of the family had to be made,” Sigauke added.
Her case mirrors that of many underprivileged girls.
Centre for Women Against Abuse (CWAA), an organisation that works with women and girls in Mashonaland West province noted that the COVID-19 pandemic had created many challenges, especially for women and girls.
“Many young girls, including those with physical disabilities face significant risks due to coronavirus-induced restrictions. Staying at home comes with financial pressures, disconnection from support networks and heightened stress have exacerbated the underlying conditions that lead to the escalation of early and forced child marriages,” CWAA director Muchadzireva Burukai said in a report last week.
The report noted that deepening poverty owing to loss of livelihoods brought about by COVID-19 drove many families to marry off their under-age daughters. This comes despite Zimbabwe outlawing child marriages in 2016.
“To navigate difficulties brought about by COVID-19, most families and guardians are marrying off their young girls as a survival mechanism,” the report added.
The CWAA director added that, just like the Nancy case, some parents marry off girls to reduce the number of children they have to support or to access bailouts in the form of lobola.
“It is usually a survival mechanism. Some parents are not doing it out of choice; they just do not have any alternative,” Burukai added.
Extended school holidays due to the coronavirus pandemic exposed many girls to abuse, noted African Union goodwill ambassador for the campaign to end child marriages, Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda.
“Schools always protect girls; they provide sanctuaries to young girls. When schools are closed, the risks of such marriages become high,” Gumbonzvanda, who is also Rozaria Memorial Trust chief executive, said. “They (girls) can access support when they are at school, but given the lockdown restrictions, support organisations have had difficulties to reach, especially remote parts of the country which are infested with such vices.”
The clear picture of the carnage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is only beginning to take shape, but experts estimate the human cost, especially on vulnerable groups such as girls, women and people with disabilities, could be disastrous.
A United Nations report released in April predicted that the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 414 200 lives globally since the disease was discovered in China last year, could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade.
In a January to May 2020 report for Murewa and Shamva, Rozaria Memorial Trust noted that the two districts registered a notable increase in physical and sexual abuse during the lockdown period. Zimbabwe has been on lockdown since May 30.
“In times of crisis such as a war or conflict, rates of child marriages and other abuse of women usually go up,” Gumbonzvanda said.
She added that the lockdown, which was extended indefinitely by President Emmerson Mnangagwa, was making it difficult for girls to access reproductive health services, leading to a surge in teenage pregnancies, which in turn resulted in increased pressure to marry.
The Rozaria Memorial Trust boss said they were concerned that some people could use the lockdown to conceal child marriages.
Because of stay-at-home guidelines to curb the spread of the virulent coronavirus, Zimbabwe is registering a surge in gender-based violence cases.
Msasa Project director Precious Taru said before the lockdown they received an average of 500 calls per month.
“Before the start of the lockdown, as Msasa Project through our call back hotline calls we were receiving about 500 cases in the whole month.
“But in the last two weeks (of the lockdown) alone, we started looking at the cases that were coming. These are being reported by women, young girls and even some men in communities talking about the gender-based violence that they are facing,” she said.
“So in that period, we have received 818 cases. This means that cases of domestic violence have risen greatly during this lockdown period.”
Economic Justice for Women Project director Margaret Mutsamvi said as along as the government paid lip service to the provision of safety nests, COVID-19 would breed a generation of child brides.
“The government needs to implement COVID-19 responsive measures that are gender sensitive, taking into consideration that the disease has different impacts on different genders. As such, channelling more resources towards sexual reproductive health and the safety of girls should be priorities,” she said.
She also implored the government to bridge the digital gap among young people, particularly in excluded communities, as a way of reducing child marriages as this could promote continued education. According to a recent news release by the United Nations Children’s Fund and Save the Children, the economic impact of COVID-19 could push up to 86 million more children into poverty by the end of 2020.
It urged the government to invest in other forms of social protection, fiscal policies, employment and labour market interventions to support families.