Zimbabwe – When schools opened their doors for the new year on March 15 and March 22, a significant number of female learners did not turn up for classes, and there are now disturbing reports explaining why.
Some of the learners fell pregnant, while others simply got married or eloped, The Sunday Mail reported.
Schools in rural areas and mining towns were affected the most. There was a lot of upheaval in the 2020 school calendar owing to the raging coronavirus pandemic.
Initially, schools were closed on March 24 only to re-open in phases after a six-month hiatus, starting with examination classes on September 28. They were followed on October 26 by learners sitting for exam classes this year, while the rest of the classes opened on November 9.
However, they closed again on December 18. The short learning time and lengthy lockdown is understood to have created fertile conditions for teen pregnancies and early marriages, as learners had a lot of idle time on their hands. According to a latest Government report, 4 959 teenagers were impregnated in January and February this year, while an additional 1 774 got into early marriages. The report indicates the figures might actually be higher, as some of the cases go unreported.
“During lockdown, learners spent more time at home, which left most men converting the community to a hunting ground,” said Minister of Women’s Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development Dr Sithembiso Nyoni.
“What is worrying is that most of the perpetrators are never brought before the law and that these teenagers are abandoning school yet Government allows for them to go back.”
A source from Dalny Mine Secondary School in Kadoma told The Sunday Mail Society that at least 28 girls did not return for class when schools reopened last month.
“Most of the dropouts were Form Four students. There were supposed to be writing their Ordinary Level this year. It is so disturbing, especially when you look at it from a district or provincial level. How many schools recorded such cases and how many girls have left school,” said a source, who chose to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter.
“Due to the stigma associated with being pregnant in school, most of them simply opt out. Six of the 67 girls that had registered for Form One enrolment also dropped out due to early marriages. A lot needs to be done quickly if we are to salvage the situation.”
At Seke 6 Secondary School in Chitungwiza, six girls dropped out this year.
Two of them have since indicated their willingness to return to class, provided they get the necessary support.
“Out of six, four of the girls eloped, while the other two still live with their parents. After talking to their parents and guiding them accordingly, we are happy two of the girls are willing to get back to school. We are expecting them back anytime,” revealed one of the school officials.
At Kalungwizi Secondary School in Binga, at least 12 girls absconded.
Efforts to talk to the parents for the girls to continue with school have been in vain.
“Some of the parents seem not to understand the importance of having their children complete secondary education. This has made me realise the need for strategies that will also enlighten the parents about the importance of education over early marriage,” said one of the teachers who lost three learners.
Child representative organisations argue that at least 40 percent of girls have dropped out of school since the first lockdown on March 31 last year. Shamwari ye Mwanasikana said in 2019 the organisation recorded a total of 94 cases of drop-outs.
However, the figure rose to 304 last year.
“It is a very sad development. Our survey indicates that some of the victims are as young as Grade Six or Seven. Government allows for pregnant girls to still attend school, but there are some issues that still need to be dealt with for this to be practical,” said Girl Child Network national coordinator Ms Shingayi Nyirenda.
Girl Guides Association of Zimbabwe commissioner Ms Florence Madhuku described the trend as disturbing.
Reasons for dropping out of schools, she said, included poverty, low self-esteem, pregnancy and being chased away from home.
“It takes a lot of maturity for one to be able to attend classes while pregnant. Looking at the ages involved, that is between 12 and 18, these are girls that still need a lot of counselling and grooming for them to be able to face their colleagues in such a state.
“Also, there is need for the creation of structures that deter young girls from sexual activities. Most of these marriages end up in divorce, gender-based-violence (GBV) and even murder. Thus, we really need to protect our children, and the only way we can do that is bring them back to school,” argues Ms Madhuku.
One of the school drop-outs, Shelly Maronda (not her real name), is four months pregnant. She was impregnated by a cattle herder who is 13 years older than her.
Maronda is supposed to be writing her final Ordinary Level examinations this year at Damba Secondary School in Hwedza.
“This was a mistake, I knew he is married and it was not meant to be anything serious,” narrated the 16-year-old.
“I still want to be in school but I have become a laughing stock. My friends have abandoned me, I am insecure and fear I will not cope in class.”
For Tanyaradzwa, a Bindura-based 17-year-old, the case is totally different.
Her parents forced her to elope.
“We lived in a compound and they could not stomach the embarrassment of having a pregnant child under their roof so they chased me away from home.
“I now live with my 19-year-old husband and in-laws. School is no longer an option. I was not ready for all this but I am left with no choice.”
The new Education Act, which came into force on August 21 last year, prohibits State (public) schools from expelling or excluding girls who fall pregnant from attending lessons, among wide-ranging reforms in the education sector. Primary and Secondary Education Minister Ambassador Cain Mathema said the move was meant to eliminate poverty by empowering the girl-child.
“On issues like child marriages, parents and community leaders have to do most of the job to protect the girls because they are the custodians,” he said.
“What is currently happening is sad. Government is playing its part to stop this school drop-out menace, thus communities should also fight for what is best for these children.”
Girl Child Network national coordinator Ms Nyirenda encouraged Government to come up with ways to re-enrol female learners who would have been affected.
She said some of the girls are victims of sexual exploitation who need counselling.
“We need to come up with ways to help these children get back to school. The numbers involved are huge, thus we cannot just let it go. Social workers need to come on board, school authorities likewise, let us go into the communities and do what is noble. On the other hand, we need to ensure that stigma and discrimination in schools is properly dealt with,” she said.
Psychologist and University of Johannesburg post-doctoral researcher Dr John Ringson said the situation requires all hands on deck.
“This is now a delicate situation, especially looking at the communities that we live in. Parents and teachers need to play a key role here; proper counselling is needed,” explained Dr Ringson.
“It is possible to re-admit students at school. But a lot comes with being pregnant and being a wife. Some of them are no longer prepared to go back to class, hence we need parents, teachers, guardians and experts to unite in this purpose.”
According to UNICEF, teen pregnancies remain a global challenge.
It is estimated that at least 16 million girls aged between 15 and 19 fall pregnant every year.