Obey Sibanda, Features Reporter
A STREAM of tears flows effortlessly down Nonsikelelo’s cheeks as she struggles to explain how she got pregnant during the abrupt closure of schools due to Covid-19 induced lockdown. Nonsikelelo claims to be 16 years old, but looking at her, you would believe that she is much younger until you find out that she is married and expectant.
When government shut down schools in March last year as part of Covid-19 containment measures, Nonsikelelo was in her third year at secondary school. She admits that the closure of schools prompted her to get married because her single mother stopped providing her with basic needs as she used to do when schools were in progress.
She became vulnerable and was sexually exploited by a young man in her community who took advantage of her financial struggles.
“When schools were closed, I used to go to the roadside to sell my wares to motorists and passengers that’s when I met Vusumuzi Ncube who offered to help support me financially and used his offer of support to have sex with me,” said Nonsikelelo while wiping tears with her scotched hand.
Nonsikelelo’s case is not an isolated one but a microscale indication of challenges faced by girl children in rural Zimbabwe. The Covid-19 pandemic has caused unprecedented havoc on children, families and communities around the globe, disrupting vital services and putting millions of lives at risk. The pandemic is threatening girls’ education as never before.
School closures have increased vulnerability of girl children to marriage and early pregnancy, all of which decrease the likelihood of girls continuing their education. Since March last year, attempts to avert the global health crisis have seen nationwide school closures in 194 countries, affecting nearly 1.6 billion learners – over 90 percent of the world’s school-going population.
A report from the government says nearly 5 000 teenage girls became pregnant in January and February and about 1 800 entered early marriages during the same period. Presenting a report on the level of public service delivery related to gender-based violence during the pandemic in parliament, Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Minister Sithembiso Nyoni said social vices such as child marriages were on increase.
“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 and most worrying is the 1 774 who are in matrimonial union before their 18th birthday,” said Nyoni.
At the summit of restrictions on movement which have also made it harder for girls to access contraceptives and family planning services, and mandatory curfews which have trapped girls in homes with predatory family members and neighbours, a Nkayi young woman Mentle Kukhanya Ncube (26), founder and Executive Director of a Non-Governmental Organisation “Khanya-Be the Light” through her organisation has taken the initiative to close the gap and be the parent to the orphans and needy girls in her home area, Nkayi.
Kukhanya remembers that as a teenage girl growing up in a poverty-stricken village in Nkayi about 200 km North West of Bulawayo, she used to see young girls trekking long distances to and from school without putting anything in their stomachs leading to some bowing out of school.
She also witnessed school girls getting pregnant at a very young age due to poverty and some forced into early marriages as a result of unplanned pregnancies and at that point in time the seed to help was planted in her heart which was to germinate later when she was enrolled at the university in UK studying phycology.
“At the time I was going through a transition trying to understand what giving was, understanding that you don’t give because you have things or you have got so much. I was never pushed to help them (the girls) but suddenly those images of poor girls began to pop up. I wanted the girls to be the light and shine wherever they are, hence the birth of Khanya-Be the Light,” said Kukhanya highlighting that time she was drowning in debt of about 1000 Pounds and did not know where she would get the money, but the zeal of helping the needy kept on tormenting her.
Through her organisation “Khanya-Be the Light”, a girl-centred and Christian based organisation her overall aim is to develop and empower young marginalised Nkayi women to become self-reliant so as to improve their livelihoods.
Contrary to many mushrooming organisations dotted around the country purporting to be striving to helping the girl child by teaching them how to protect themselves from sexual transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, Khanya-Be the Light preaches abstinence which somehow has landed them in murky waters with unruly community members who are skewed in taking advantage of the girl child.
“Our message is clear, we teach the girls abstinence. Some community members are not happy with us because they think we are now opening their girls’ eyes”, said Kukhanya.
The organisation has 100 beneficiaries who receive psychological, educational, spiritual, moral and social support under five service pillars or domains which are: Keep Our Girls in School Initiative, Girl’s Basic Sanitary Health, Vuk’zenzele Initiative (Self-help, sustainable projects initiative), Leadership and Transformation Developmental Programs, and Abused Survivors Psychological Rehabilitation.
Through Keep Our Girls in School Initiative, they have seen a tremendous impact among the girl children. The organisation identified needy girls whom they are giving all the school necessities including fees and uniforms in ward 28, 16 and 20 in Dakamela, Manomano and Zinyangeni. The organisation has gone to the extent of introducing lessons to cater for girls during the Covid-19 induced lockdown.
Seventeen-year old girl, Nontobeko* who was clueless of what she really wanted in life and is a beneficiary of Khanya-Be the Light thanked the organisation for uplifting her in life.
“I had no direction with no hope of doing something tangible in life but it all changed when I joined Khanya-be the light. The organisation has changed my life with its light as well as giving me direction and shown me how to walk in it. Now I can walk and talk with confidence and I foresee that I will do marvelous and greater things in future,” said an emotional Nontobeko while struggling to hold her tears back.
The organisation has trained mentors and beneficiaries in various contemporary, health related issues including Covid-19 awareness, micro-projects, sanitary issues, education and psychological rehabilitation, among others.
“Among the leading social ills that seem to crop up in the lives of teenage rural girls are poor sanitary health, teenage marriages, unwanted teenage pregnancies, low self-esteem and school dropouts,” said Kukhanya.
In order to alleviate the negative impacts of economic woes affecting a girl child in the face of deteriorating socio-economic environments, as well as improve nutrition at household level among girls in rural communities, the organisation has started another initiative of equipping young girls to produce vegetables, solar dry and package them as a way of value addition towards attainment of a reasonable degree of food and economic independence among rural girls.
The organisation has acquired land and implemented the initiative in the two villages and in ward 16 and 20 although activity has begun at a small scale, with crops like tomatoes, onion, carrots, spinach, beetroot, peppers, kale rape and a variety of horticulture crops already planted on small acreages.
“Our organisation envisages taking horticulture production to commercially sustainable heights. The agricultural initiative was taken because it fits the farming culture of most rural communities in Zimbabwe,” said Kukhanya.