MUREHWA, Zimbabwe (AP) — Inside a sparsely furnished two-room home in rural Zimbabwe, a 3-month-old baby cries. His mother, Virginia Mavhunga, spends her days making trips to the well with a bucket on her head, selling fruits and vegetables at the roadside, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes — she has too much on her hands to offer her child, Tawananyasha, much comfort.
“That’s my life now, every day,” the new mother said.
Between the chores of her strict routine, Virginia prepares her siblings for school and helps with homework when they return. It's these tasks that hit Virginia the hardest — because, at age 13, she, too, would rather be in school.
Virginia is part of a steep increase in pregnancies among girls and teenagers reported in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries during the pandemic. Zimbabwe has long struggled with such pregnancies and child marriages. Before COVID-19 hit, one of every three girls was wed before age 18, many with unplanned pregnancies, because of lax enforcement of laws, widespread poverty, and cultural and religious practices.
This story is part of a yearlong series on how the pandemic is impacting women in Africa, most acutely in the least developed countries. The Associated Press series is funded by the European Journalism Centre’s European Development Journalism Grants program, which is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The AP is responsible for all content.
The spread of coronavirus intensified the situation. The country of 15 million imposed a strict lockdown in March 2020, closing schools for six months and reopening them only intermittently. Girls in particular were left idle and shut out from access to contraceptives and clinics.
Many became victims of sexual abuse or looked to marriage and pregnancy as an escape from poverty, advocates and officials said. Before the pandemic, many such girls were “relegated as a lost cause,” said Taungana Ndoro, a Zimbabwe education official.
But faced with the rising numbers, the government in August 2020 changed a law that long banned pregnant students from schools. Activists and authorities hailed the move as a significant step in the developing nation, but so far the new policy has largely failed. Most girls haven't returned, with authorities and families citing economic hardship, deep-seated cultural norms, and bullying in school.
The AP generally doesn't name victims of sexual abuse without consent. For this story, the girls and their families have agreed to be identified and have their names published, in keeping with their wishes to have their stories told.
Virginia tried to return but became the subject of gossip in a community not accustomed to seeing a pregnant girl in a school uniform.
She had hoped the older man who impregnated her would marry her. Despite initial promises, he ultimately denied paternity, she said. She and her family didn't follow through on a statutory-rape case, despite a consent age of 16 under Zimbabwean law.
Those convicted of sexual intercourse or “an indecent act” with anyone younger can get a fine or up to 10 years in jail. But most incidents don't get that far. Families and officials have long tried “to sweep the cases under the carpet or ... force marriages on the minor,” police spokesman Paul Nyathi said.
Police said they couldn't provide figures on such cases. Nyathi said a tally would be ready in several weeks — but any data are likely an undercount.
Zimbabwe does have figures on pregnancies in girls who drop out of school — and while they show an alarming increase, officials say they, too, are likely undercounted, as many girls leave without giving reasons.
In 2018, about 3,000 girls dropped out because of pregnancies. In 2019, that number remained relatively steady. In 2020, the number rose: 4,770 pregnant students left school.
And in 2021, it skyrocketed: About 5,000 students got pregnant in the year's first two months.
Across Africa during the pandemic, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, South Africa and Zambia also “all recorded a steep rise in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, which has contributed to a reported increase in pregnancies among young and adolescent girls,” according to an Amnesty International report. Africa has one of the highest pregnancy rates among adolescents worldwide, according to the United Nations; Zimbabwe and a handful of other nations now have policies to protect pregnant girls' education.
Zimbabwe's law change gave community workers opportunities to encourage returning to school. Through a group that promotes girls' rights, Tsitsi Chitongo held community meetings and knocked on doors in remote areas.
The lack of enthusiasm from families jolted her. By November, her group had persuaded only one girl to return to school in Murehwa — a poor rural township of mostly small farmers dealing with the fallout of drought, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from the capital, Harare.
“Most parents are still steeped in the old way of doing things,” she said. “They prefer to have the child married, even if she is under the age of 18. They tell us, ‘I am already struggling to take care of my family; I can’t afford an extra mouth.’"
For 16-year-old Tanaka Rwizi, the backyard of a Doctors Without Borders-run clinic run in the impoverished Mbare township replaced school. A club for teenage mothers provides crash courses on earning money by giving manicures or making soap for sale. It began in 2019 for a handful of participants; since COVID-19 hit, more than 300 have come.
Like many girls, Tanaka also looks to marriage to survive. She said the 20-year-old man who impregnated her promised they'll wed when she turns 18 — the youngest allowed by law.
“I can’t wait that long," Tanaka said. She planned to go to him immediately after giving birth.
The clinic also offers contraceptives. But travel restrictions shut out many people from the supply and counseling. Workers say many need such services because of conservative parents who equate contraceptives with prostitution.
For Virginia, travel restrictions meant she was stuck in Murehwa after visiting her parents from her city school. When she gave birth, her father ignored advice to make her leave home. Her mother wanted to protect her, and that included keeping her out of school — away from harassment.
Virginia vows to return someday. She wants to get into a university, earn a degree and repay her parents' faith in her by building them a bigger home.
“I am not afraid of going back to school once my child is older," she said. "They may laugh at me now, but I am dedicating all my spare time and weekends to reading and catching up.
“This is not the end of the road, just a forced break.”