HIV intervention rescues Mash West’s young girls

Mhande is among many girls in Mashonaland West province undergoing a unique programme designed to empower adolescent girls.

Cecelia Mhande (20), who completed "A" Level and did exceptionally well — coming out with 11 points, is anxious about going to university and studying social work.

Mhande of Chikangwe suburb in Karoi has had a torrid time paying school fees from primary school up to high school, but thanks to well-wishers and charity organisations that have made her education possible.

She is among a handful of girls in Mashonaland West province that have remained in school, enduring discriminatory gender norms and harmful practices coupled with the lure of tobacco farmers and artisanal miners.

While hordes of her peers cherish working as domestic workers and doing other menial jobs in major towns, Mhande believes she has to pursue her studies and become a social worker, a profession she is so passionate about.

She said her peers contemplate going to other towns, especially Harare because they always received a wooden spoon from their parents when it comes to education.

“Both my parents are deaf and dumb,” said Mhande.

“It was difficult for them to pay for my school fees, but I managed to complete "A" Level last year with support from well-wishers.

“I am yet to find financial support to go to university where I want to study social work.

“I believe if I study social work, I will come back and help my communities, especially adolescent girls and young mothers.”

Mhande is among many girls in Mashonaland West province undergoing a unique programme designed to empower adolescent girls.

The Sista2Sista programme has touched the lives of hordes of girls in the country through mentorship since it offers a safe place where vulnerable adolescent girls and young women can speak with mentors and each other about their problems.

Girls and young mothers in the club learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights, financial literacy, and how to navigate difficult social situations, including coercive relationships.

The programme also aims to give girls the confidence and self-esteem to stand up for themselves.

“The biggest challenge we have here is teen pregnancies,” said Mhande.

“I have learnt a lot of things, including that early marriages are wrong. They are wrong in the sense that they breed gender-based violence, something that I have seen happening to my peers, who were married under the age of 16,” she said.

“Apart from early marriages, we also do sessions on sexual and reproductive health as well as HIV and Aids.”

Sista2Sista mentor in Chikangwe Mavis Tagarira said the programme helps girls to socialise with their peers and learn from others about how to defend their sexual reproductive health rights.

“Girls learn a lot of things under the Sista2Sista programme, with the main emphasis being helping girls navigate difficult social situations,” she said.

“A lot of girls who have gone through this programme are doing well and the mindset of the community has changed.”

Across the province in Chegutu district Theresa Garikai (23), a Sista2Sista alumnus, shared her story of resilience, zeal and determination.

“I got married at the age of 17 years when I was doing Form 3, but I realised I needed education to be empowered, thanks to the Sista2Sista club that I had been part of,” she said.

“I went to a nearby secondary school to enrol for Form 4, but I was turned down because I was married and having a child.

“I travelled 15km to the other secondary school where they accepted me despite my status.”

The Education Amendment Act of 2020 allows re-entry of pregnant girls and adolescent mothers to school.

Before the act a large number of girls dropped out of school due to pregnancies and did not return even after giving birth for various reasons.

This has resulted in an increased number of child marriage cases within the country as most girls saw no other alternative than to get married after falling pregnant and giving birth.

According to ZimStat 2019, 33,7% of girls were married before the age of 18, which translates to one in every three girls.

“I benefited from the new government policy and I managed to pass my "O" Level,” said Garikai.

“I want to do nursing and I thank my teachers, my in-laws, my husband and my family who were very supportive.

“I also want to thank my Sista2Sista mentor Thandiwe Musinami and Sister Vee (District Aids Coordinator for Chegutu Virginia Tausa) who built the confidence in me.

“I encourage other girls to join these clubs as they empower us.”

Musinami said they were around the clock to keep girls in schools.

“Our programme has a lot to learn from, but we try by all means to keep girls in schools,” she said.

“We have received a lot of support from the community and traditional leaders, faith-based organisations and parents who have embraced the programme.”

“Most girls in this area have become victims of discrimination as parents or guardians opt to send boys to school, especially for further education.

“Due to this prejudice, the girls end up migrating to cities where most of them are employed as house maids or they join the sex work band wagon while the rest get married.

Failure to educate girls is endangering efforts to realise the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goal number 4, which among issues ensures that all girls and boys complete free primary and secondary schooling by 2030.

According to the International Labour Organisation, over two thirds of the world’s 860 million illiterates are women and the organisation claims that failure to educate girls’ costs developing countries US$92 billion a year.

Tausa said the Sista2Sista programme among other programmes targeted at adolescent girls and young women were key to national development.

“We have other programmes like the Dreams, Brotha2Brotha and Behaviour Change Community Motivator among others that seek to educate communities about HIV,” she said.

“Most of our programme focuses on preventing HIV among key populations especially adolescent girls and young women while promoting their overall health and well-being through a multi-sectoral approach.

Walday North village head Jacob Muhlungu welcomed the HIV intervention programmes.

“I work with other two village heads in this area and several others under Chief Ngezi here in Chegutu district,” he said.

“We have embraced these programmes as traditional leaders and we appeal to NAC and the government to roll out more programmes that help our community.”

NAC provincial manager for Mashonaland West province David Nyamurera said his organisation has stepped up efforts to fight HIV in the province.

“In our efforts to respond to HIV, we have come up with a cocktail of intervention programmes and it’s paying off,” Nyamurera said.

“Among our programmes, we have those targeted at key populations and in our case we are talking about sex workers, artisanal miners, young college girls and boys, men who have sex with men and vulnerable groups,” he said.

He said among HIV hotspots were fishing camps, mining communities, growth points, truck inns along the highway and tertiary institutions.

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