THERE could have never been a more heartbreaking and disturbing sight.
I had gone to the local clinic in my small town of Redcliff, Midlands province, for a scheduled medical review.
This is an ordinary routine I have followed for years now.
However, this time around, there was nothing “ordinary” about this trip, which normally does not take more than an hour.
As we sat on the benches, in a rather short queue to see the resident medical practitioner — who, in reality, is a State-registered nurse — my eyes fell upon a troubling sight.
At first I could not immediately work out what I was seeing — but my brain did not take too long to figure out what was in front of me.
Here was a little girl — my estimate placing her age at not older than 15 years old — sitting there with a baby in her arms.
Was this her little sister whom she had brought to the clinic?
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Or, was it possible that she was the baby’s minder, sent by the parents to the clinic for medical attention?
Nonetheless, I did not have to wait long for the answer to these vexing questions.
A baby has to be fed, eventually and, the mystery was immediately solved.
This was her baby.
In my mind this phrase played out: This is a baby who gave birth to a baby.
To make matters worse, it was quite obvious from her demeanour and behaviour that she was confused and clueless on how to care for her baby.
How could she know, as she was only a child — who herself needed to be taken care of by her own parents!
Fortunately, the nurses and other older women at the clinic were at hand to offer some sound advice on such basics as how to hold and breastfeed her baby.
Unfortunately, though, she is not the only one. In Zimbabwe, being a mother at that age is no longer a rare occurrence.
As a matter of fact, according to the United Nations Population Fund, 32% of girls in Zimbabwe are married off before the age of 18. 12% of these are married off before they are 15 years old.
Now those are shocking statistics. Yet, that is not even the worst of it.
Data released by the Zimbabwe Statistical Agency (ZimStats) revealed that 69 000 girls between the ages of 10 and 19 gave birth in 2022 alone.
This was largely attributed to the high prevalence of child marriages.
Another factor is drug abuse — whereby adolescent boys and girls engage in unsafe sexual activities while under the influence of illicit substances.
Actually, this year (2023) showed that 60% of school dropouts in the country were as a result of drug and substance abuse.
This is according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, in collaboration with the government, Muthengo Development Studies, Zimbabwe Liberties and Drug Network and Youth Advocates Zimbabwe.
What can be more chilling than such figures?
A few days ago, the Zimbabwean government moved to harmonise sexual consent laws by approving principles on the amendment of the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act that will criminalise having sex with anyone below 18 years of age.
Similarly, the Constitution of Zimbabwe (section 78) states that every person who has attained the age of 18 has the right to found a family and no person may be compelled to enter into marriage against their will.
The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act outlaws the pledging for marriage of female persons, especially those under the age of 18.
As much as all these legal provisions are commendable efforts at curtailing the prevalence of child marriages and adolescent pregnancies, much more still needs to be done in reaching out to communities on the ground.
There is need for a concerted approach in ending harmful cultural practices which have been fingered as the major drivers of child marriages — such as the pledging of children in marriage or as restitution to an aggrieved family.
The same goes for some religious sects that not only permit but actually solemnise marriages with underage girls, mostly to more mature and already married church elders.
In addition, the fight against drug and substance abuse needs to be seen as genuine.
There is a common belief that government measures are half-hearted due to the suspected involvement of highly-connected individuals and cartels in the illicit drug trade.
In so doing, falling pregnant no longer becomes the only concern, but also the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
This scourge cannot be seriously tackled without fixing the economy.
It is common knowledge that most of these underage girls are either being forced into marriages or enticed into early sexual relationships on account of poverty.
Some families are marrying off their young daughters in exchange for financial benefits from the “husbands”, who are usually economically well-off.
While, underage girls are venturing into premature sexual activities in the hope of receiving, in return, financial support from their so-called “blessers”.
What I could not find unbelievable though, is readily available statistics on adolescent maternal mortality.
I really wonder why it is nearly impossible to establish how many girls under the age of 18 died while giving birth or as a result of pregnancy-related complications.
Nevertheless, most of us heard of the most tragic death of 14-year-old Anna Machaya — who lost her life as she gave birth at a Johanne Masowe Apostolic sect shrine in Marange in 2021.
This was followed by another needless loss of life for 15-year-old Nekutenda Hwaramba in October 2022, under similar circumstances.
The scientific fact is that girls of that age are still physically immature to carry through a pregnancy.
It is now up to all of us to ensure that we protect our children from this scourge of adolescent pregnancies.
Parents have a duty to protect their children — as opposed to perceiving them as tickets out of poverty.
In fact, we need to play a more proactive role in teaching our children issues related to sexual and reproductive health.
We can’t simply look on or, in the case of some men, actually regard these as potential sexual partners.
There are still children, and it is quite cruel to allow them to give birth to other children.
- Tendai Ruben Mbofana is a social justice activist, writer, author and speaker. He writes here in his personal capacity.