by Tafara Mugwara
HARARE, March 13 (Xinhua) -- A sharp increase in teen pregnancies and child marriages has been reported in Zimbabwe during the COVID-19 lockdown, with at least 4,959 girls falling pregnant, and 1,174 cases of child marriages being recorded between January and February 5 this year.
A prolonged lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic has seen children going for months without attending school, exacerbating the complex factors that drive teen pregnancies and early marriages.
Schools in Zimbabwe spent the greater part of last year closed following the outbreak of COVID-19.
After abruptly closing in March last year, schools only reopened in a phased manner starting with examination classes in September, followed by this year's examination classes in October and the rest of learners in November.
The Southern African country started 2021 by going into a lockdown necessitated by increased cases of COVID-19.
Schools will reopen in a phased manner starting from March 15 after more than two months of a national lockdown.
Presenting a report on the level of public service delivery related to gender-based violence during the pandemic in parliament last week, Women Affairs 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," said Nyoni, adding that 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 abuse," she said.
Seventeen-year-old Natsiraishe Maritsa, the founder of Vulnerable Underaged People's Auditorium Initiative, an organization that seeks to end child marriages, said if not addressed promptly, the scourge of early marriages can become a pandemic.
"Child marriages and pregnancies should be addressed promptly because without attending to these factors, child marriages and pregnancies will become another pandemic," Maritsa told Xinhua on Friday.
"There is still a lot to be done concerning the issue of child pregnancies and marriages which I think is human rights abuse based on gender inequalities," Maritsa said.
She said it was high time to lobby for deterrent punishment for the perpetrators who seem to go scot-free.
Maritsa, a Taekwondo enthusiast who stays in Epworth, a high-density settlement just outside Zimbabwe's capital Harare, mooted an idea to use sport as a means to raise awareness about the scourge of teen pregnancies in her community.
Maritsa uses taekwondo sessions to draw in girls who are at risk of falling into the early marriage trap. Training sessions are followed by discussions where young people are conscientious about the dangers of indulging in early sexual relations.
She believes that keeping girls occupied, especially during the pandemic lockdown, through sporting activities can distract them from the social ills rampant in her community.
Through her organization, Maritsa has helped raise awareness of the dangers of teen pregnancies and child marriages in her community.
In Zimbabwe, many school dropouts among girls are a result of pregnancies, which risks them being trapped in poverty cycles.
According to Save the Children, the pandemic could lead to a spike in child marriages globally, reversing 25 years of the progress that has been made so far on ending the practice across the globe.
This is because the pandemic is increasing poverty levels, forcing many girls out of school and into marriage or work, according to Save the Children.
The lockdown and the protracted closure of schools have also left many girls cut off from support systems intended to protect them from abuse.
The United Nations Population Fund says pandemic restrictions may delay interventions against child marriage and cause a long-lasting economic downturn that will push more families into poverty, which is a key driver of child marriage.
In Zimbabwe, a myriad of factors has been associated with early marriages, key among them being poverty and religious beliefs.
Despite various government intervention programs and legislation that prohibit child marriages, the practice is still common in rural areas and poor urban areas.
According to the Research and Advocacy Unit, 31 percent of girls in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18 and four percent are married before their 15th birthday, despite the fact that Zimbabwe has criminalized all marriages below the age of 18.
The government has also adopted a raft of measures to keep girls from disadvantaged backgrounds in school.
Last year, Zimbabwe amended the country's Education Act by making it illegal to expel pregnant girls from school. Enditem