Source: The Standard

At 15, Dorcas Zvairewa realizes she is fast running out of friends. One by one, her peers are dropping out of school to either get married or nurse pregnancies.

With the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, her circle of friends has grown even smaller as the devastating economic and social impact of the pandemic forces more girls into early motherhood.

"Most of the marriages did not work," the tall, light-skinned girl said, wearing a solemn face as she stood close to an unfinished church building at Karambazunga business centre in Hurungwe's ward 16 Mashonaland West province.

Her faint, yet clear voice expressed a mixture of both fear and hope.

The dilapidated structures at the business centre are messages of the despair that had stalked the community.

"The girls are often left looking after the children alone, and dejected in most cases," she said.

Her friends' situation has been both disturbing and life-changing for Zvairewa.

Rather than resign to fate or join the bandwagon, the Form 3 student at Karambazunga Secondary School has decided to do something about it.

She now spends most of her time tapping into the wisdom of elders, and in turn, uses it to educate fellow girls on how to make the best life decisions.

Zvairewa is one of several, who have become gender champions in their communities, volunteering their time to engage in awareness programmes to highlight the dangers of child marriages, early pregnancies, and sexual and gender-based violence.

Gender champions such as Zvairewa are part of the Spotlight Initiative, a programme supported through a partnership between the European Union (EU) and the United Nations aimed at ending violence against women and girls as well as harmful practices.

UN Women, in conjunction with its local partners, is implementing the Spotlight Initiative.

For Zvairewa, the initiative has helped her realise her desire to change the situation of girls in her impoverished rural community.

"I was touched by the situation, which many of my friends find themselves in," she said.

"That's why I volunteered to be a gender champion. At school, I am given time to teach pupils, especially the girl child, life issues.

"I have received training on gender-based violence through the Spotlight Initiative and my efforts have seen a reduction in the number of such cases."

Zimbabwe is part of 20 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia-Pacific, and the Caribbean, that are participating in the four-year programme launched in 2019. The first phase ends in June 2021.

The EU put in about US$30 million for the first phase of the initiative to help Zimbabwe meet some of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 3 and 5) on empowering women and girls to realise their full potential in a violence-free, gender-responsive and inclusive environment.

"The school administration is very supportive of the Spotlight Initiative because it does not focus on the children alone, but the parents as well, to make sure domestic factors that force girls to rush into early marriages are eliminated," Zvairewa said.

Stenford Tapfuma (17), another gender champion at the same school, says the Spotlight Initiative has helped reduce violence at schools that had scared away other pupils.

Tapfuma said some girls entered into marriages to escape abuse by parents at home.

"They see marriage as their only escape route," Tapfuma said.

Economic problems worsened by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic are a major factor in child marriages, early pregnancies and gender based violence, he said.

"The issue of budgeting in homes is a major issue.

"We live in farming areas, children are forced to abscond from school so that they help their parents with field work, but come harvesting time, parents budget their money without consulting their children.

"It is frustrating," Tapfuma said.

"Some parents squander all the money and children are sent away from school for lack of school fees.

"They don't give their children even a few dollars to buy under garments.

"Young men in the community, who dropped out of school and are making a few dollars out of tobacco or cotton farming, will come in and entice the girls into marriage, sometime with small things like jiggies.

"The temptation to want to run their homes where they will also be in charge of budgets will be irresistible.

"The Spotlight Initiative is also helping parents to consult their children in budgeting so that they understand the needs of their children."

Child marriages have become a global problem, with the UN's children's agency, Unicef, stating that an estimated 12 million girls are married before reaching 18 and that about 650 million girls and women alive today were married before that age globally.

It is estimated that 32% of girls in Zimbabwe are married off before the age of 18, meaning approximately one in every three girls are married before reaching that age while 4% are married before they turn 15.

The situation was reported to have worsened during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

Hurungwe ward 16 councillor Maxwell Matimba said between 10 and 15 young girls dropped out of school and opted to get into marriage at each of the 11 schools in his ward in 2019, a worrying figure, but also showing a downward trend.

"Roughly, we had about 150 girls marrying off before the age of 18 in 2018 alone, and the number is now going down, thanks to the Spotlight Initiative," Matimba said.

"Poverty and failure by parents to budget with the consultation of the children has been the major cause.

"There was no awareness of the importance of budgeting. The issue of budgeting was contributing a lot.

"Girls were not being provided for.

"We also had some religious groups that were also marrying off young girls, they are now part of the Spotlight Initiative and the practice within their churches is reducing."

Enoch Kawanga (60), Hurungwe ward 16 co-ordinator of the Caritas Initiative, said some parents were not even paying fees for their children despite selling farm produce at the markets.

"The girls feel inferior if their parents struggle to pay fees and do not provide for their needs," Kawanga said.

"If they feel inferior, their potential is destroyed and they rush into early marriages.

"Sometimes boyfriends pay the fees. We have been trying to teach villagers on the dangers of early marriages and we now have a situation where some girls, who were married want to go back to school."

He said most of the abused children were under the care of stepmothers.

So severe was the problem of budgeting that Kawanga said most men even committed suicide after squandering all the money after selling farm produce at the markets and would be embarrassed to face their wives and children.

Some women, in pain after toiling the whole year, also killed themselves when men returned home empty-handed after abusing all the monies realised from the sale of produce.

"They take the herbicides they use to produce the crops to take their lives, we have many cases, but the cases have gone down because people now understand the importance of budgeting," Kawanga said.

Pardon Chabata, the Caritas Spotlight Initiative co-ordinator, blamed poverty and poor budgeting for early child marriages as well as school dropouts.

"Most of the children get into early marriages not because they want to, but because of poverty and loss of parents," Chabata said.

"We are trying to use the Spotlight Initiative to give them the opportunity to go to school and learn and make good life judgments."

Spotlight Initiative UN Women country representative Delphine Serumaga said: "The eradication and prevention of sexual gender-based violence and harmful practices through addressing the root causes will impact on women and girls' ability to have a 'voice', 'choice' and 'control' over their lives.

"This will be essential for the empowerment of women and girls, especially those who face multiple forms of discrimination.

"Through the Spotlight Initiative at UN Women, we have continued to play a role in advocating for gender equality, empowerment and women's rights in Zimbabwe."

To address the problem of child marriages, the Spotlight Initiative has rolled out a campaign, Catch Them Young in Hurungwe, Guruve, Muzarabani and Mbire districts through various partners.

The Catch Them Young initiative trains and supports young children to pursue education so that they shun early childhood marriages.

"We had a problem of young girls leaving school to enter into early marriages," Portia Moffat, a gender champion in Guruve said.

"The Catch Them Young programme here at Muzika Primary School educates children on the importance of pursuing their studies and instead of rushing into marriages.

"Cases of school dropouts have gone down. Children are taught the importance of education through song, drama and poetry. Parents are appreciating our efforts."

A group consisting of the Lower Guruve Development Association (LGDA), Caritas, and other community-based organisations are spearheading the programmes meant to create awareness on the impact of gender based violence.

Tavirai Marega, an LGDA programmes officer, said through the Spotlight Initiative, they were teaching parents to support young girls so that they don't rush into marriages, where they face high prospects of life-threatening complications during childbirth.

"Many children are getting pregnant at a very young age and the men do not take them to hospital for childbirth because they fear being arrested," Marega said.

"The girls end up dying during childbirth and this is what we are educating them about as a way of trying to end child marriages."

About 55 young girls were impregnated in 2019 alone at Kondo Secondary School in Guruve.

For Zvairewa, such a situation is untenable, and feels her circle of friends will shrink further if girls like her do not intervene.

So far, it has been worthwhile, she said.

"Some of the girls have been lucky to enrol in school again," Zvairewa said, beaming, walking towards her bicycle while fastening her Spotlight Initiative jacket that hanged loosely on top of her school uniform.

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