Zimbabwe’ Secondary Pandemic: A Crisis of Child pregnancy and sexual abuse

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By Taruberekera Masara in Pretoria

Zimbabwe is enduring a terrible pandemic inside a pandemic. There has been an unchecked rise in child pregnancy and sexual abuse across the country.

Women Affairs Minister Sithembiso Nyoni reported that 4 959 teenage pregnancies were recorded between January and February this year 2021.

The trend is worrying and very unprecedented.

Presenting a report in Parliament Minister Nyoni said:”Between January and February 5, 2021, there were 4 959 teenage pregnancies as well as 1 774 child marriages recorded countrywide,”

“A total of 4 959 got impregnated in such a short period and this means that nearly 5 000 of our girls risk losing their educational opportunity if they do not pursue re-admission.

She further reported that a number of teenagers are now in marital unions albeit before reaching the legal majority age.

“Most worrying is the 1 774 who are in matrimonial union before their 18th birthday”,

“They have lost opportunities and have also become vulnerable to other forms of violence, assault, which include economic and emotional” she said.

These tragic circumstances are a direct result of the lockdown decree that was made by the government following the outbreak of corona virus.

Since April 1 2020, the Zimbabwean government  introduced one of the world’s longest and strictest lockdowns in response to the first detected cases of corona virus. The devastating impact of lockdown on the already severe child rights abuses have been exposed.

The lockdown consequentially brew a Secondary pandemic that is ravaging communities.

Although Zimbabwe’s experience with child pregnancy and sexual abuse is not unique, the extent and prevalence of the issue, compounded by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, has triggered a ‘secondary pandemic’ in the country marred by rising child pregnancy rates and GBV.

Unlike Covid-19 however, child pregnancy and marriages are a direct result of  socio-economic and political conditions that undermine the ability of girls to escape from abuse.

Minister Nyoni said that the victims have a likelihood of losing opportunities and also become vulnerable to other forms of violence, assault, which include economic and emotional abuse.

The country however, is  working on finalizing legislation that will help to curb abuses.Sexual Harassment Bill and Gender Equality Bill.

These legal instruments will criminalize the offence of sexual harassment and provide frameworks for gender equality.

However,it is paramount to understand that law alone cannot sufficiently address the problem of child pregnancy and sexual abuse.

To curb the ‘pandemic’ there is need to step up raising girls’ awareness of their sexual and reproductive health and rights, protecting them from abuse and connecting them with education and health services.

Government must strengthen national health systems, implement comprehensive education on sexuality and relationships in and out of schools, and provide affordable, safe contraception to tackle the root causes of adolescent pregnancy.

One outstanding causes of child pregnancy in the recent past has been poverty. Where girls chose to marry off as a way of escaping lockdown induced hardships. In some cases parents marrying off their girl children so that they get money or support. In respect of such the government therefore has to plan robust empowerment programs to improve economic well-being of women. Empowering women goes a long way in giving power of choice among the vulnerable.

By and large in  order to prevent teenage pregnancy, teenagers need to have a comprehensive understanding of abstinence, contraceptive techniques, and consequences. Although there are many different ways to prevent a teenage girl from becoming pregnant, the only one that is absolutely effective is sexual abstinence.

According to Fatima Singhateh, Special Rapporteur on children’s rights United Nations-Human Rights Council said,COVID-19 pandemic caused a socio-economic crisis that has worsened the existing stark inequalities of vulnerable children and this had resulted in the amplification of their risks.

She added that there was notable concern on the unprecedented spike in online sexual exploitation and abuse of children because of new and emerging forms of technology

Governments should, inter alia, put in place a robust rights-based protection system even before disaster struck in order to prevent or mitigate the increased risks of violence, abuse, neglect and exploitation of children in times of a national emergency or public health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Singhateh ,child participation must be encouraged in the decision-making process and the development of any strategy during and after the pandemic on protecting them from sale, sexual abuse and exploitation.

The cooperation and collaboration amongst governments, international and national organizations, businesses as well as civil society organizations and global alliances must be encouraged as they all had a role to play in the protection of children from sale, sexual exploitation and abuse.

Zimbabwe’s teenage pregnancy rate of about 22% places the country in position 28 out of 54, with number 1 being the worst, on UNICEF’s early childbearing list.

The majority of the 22% that is being flagged in the petition to parliament were 18- and 19-year olds, accounting for nearly 80% of teenage mothers. This unmitigated disaster needs checking and redress.