CHINYUNYU, ZAMBIA — She was 16, a student, dreamed of becoming a teacher. He was 28, a farmer, ran a small grocery store. They met last year, as the coronavirus pandemic ruptured Annette’s world. Her mom, a housekeeper, lost her job. Her dad, a construction worker, lost his. The family’s plot of maize wasn’t enough to feed Annette and her five younger siblings.
“We had no means of surviving,” she says.
Slender and soft-spoken, Annette lives in a farming community east of Lusaka, the nation’s capital, an expanse of maize and cattle so quiet you can hear the wind rustle leaves. With classes canceled because of the coronavirus, and virtual learning impossible without electricity and reliable internet, her days emptied. She lingered at the grocery store, chatting with the farmer.
“We had serious challenges with food at home, and this man was always available to offer a helping hand,” she says. Groceries. Sometimes money. “I fell for him. That is how our relationship started.”
In Annette’s village, prospects for girls are bleak. Poverty is rampant and finishing secondary school a challenge. Girls often trade sexual favors for financial security, Annette says. “My dream was never to fall in the same trap like most of the girls in my community. But the challenges were beyond me.”
Once their relationship turned intimate, Annette and the farmer didn’t use contraception; she believed, incorrectly, it would make her infertile. In November, she missed one period. In December, another.
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In Zambia, pregnancy all too often steals a girl’s ambitions. Poverty is usually to blame. More than half the country makes less than 214 Zambian kwacha (about $9) a month, according to the World Bank. Some families have little choice but to marry off their pregnant daughters and pass the financial responsibilities to their husbands.
The age of consent in Zambia is 16, while the age of adulthood is 18. Under the law, it’s illegal to “marry or marry off a learner who is a child.” However, about 15% of girls and women ages 15 to 19 are married, according to the country’s 2018 Demographic and Health Survey. Among men and boys of the same age, only 1% are married.
Before the pandemic, Zambian officials launched a national effort to reduce what is among the world’s highest child marriage rates. They prioritized sex education, reproductive health services and anti-poverty programs, says Elizabeth Phiri, the minister of Gender at the time of the interview. Initial results were encouraging: From 2014 to 2018, the most recent numbers available, the percentage of wedded girls dipped. But the pandemic’s school closures and economic despair undercut the effort.
After some students returned to class in June 2020 to prepare for exams, the Zambia National Education Coalition surveyed 500 schools around the country. Of nearly 48,000 female students, more than 6% didn’t return, says executive director George Hamusunga. A majority were pregnant, married or both.
“Teenage pregnancy is something that has troubled us for a while. It has become worse with this pandemic,” says Jobbicks Kalumba, the Ministry of General Education’s permanent secretary for technical services. “There is little we can do when the children are not in school. We are always encouraging parents to ensure they talk to their children about sex, provide for them and keep them busy with studies at home.”
The pandemic stressors that force girls into marriage are not unique to Zambia. The United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, estimates that, over the next decade, as many as 10 million more girls across the globe are at risk of becoming child brides.
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Once pregnant, Annette had few options. (She asked to use her first name to avoid undue stigma.) She considered getting an abortion but didn’t know she could do so at a hospital. Her friends advised her to drink an herbal brew to end the pregnancy, but she feared it would kill her.
Instead, she told her parents. Her father shut down. Her mother, Janet, was more practical. “I have no means to look after her and the baby,” says Janet, whose last name is being withheld to protect her daughter’s identity. “So the man that impregnated her needs to take up the responsibility.”
There was no wedding ceremony, no celebration. One night, Annette’s parents dropped her off at the farmer’s home: two rooms molded from clay with a grass-thatched roof. The farmer declined to be named or interviewed.
“My parents are struggling and could not also take another burden,” Annette says. “So I am not even bitter with my parents. They did the best they could do.” As is the tradition in many Zambian unions, the farmer was now the arbiter of Annette’s fate – including whether she returned to school.
Many Zambian girls give up their education to raise children. The problem is particularly acute in the country’s least populated – and poorest – swaths. According to a 2015 World Bank report, almost 80% of girls who leave school due to pregnancy live in rural areas.
Annette attended a large school with students from surrounding farming communities. “Every term or month, we see girls not reporting to school, and when we investigate, we are told, ‘So-and-so is pregnant or married,’” says teacher Andrew Nyirenda. The staff encourages parents to bring their daughters back, but that rarely happens.
“This is really heartbreaking, especially if a child is really intelligent,” he says. “But at the end of the day, it’s the parents and the girl who decide what to do.”
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In Annette’s class alone, at least four girls became pregnant while school was shuttered. So did Mary, 16, who is in a different grade and identified by her first name to avoid stigma. Mary’s friends scared her out of using birth control, and no adult around her contradicted them.
“The message was always ‘stay home to stay safe,’ so it was scary to even visit a clinic for fear of catching the coronavirus,” she says. She gave birth but didn’t get married. Even so, she hasn’t returned to school – she has no one to watch her daughter.
Zambia’s education ministry requires that schools have the parents or guardian of a pregnant student sign a form agreeing that the girl will reenroll. But there’s no way to enforce that pledge. Advocates are pressing for a law to change that.
“The future of this nation is in these girls,” says Costern Kanchele, interim director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia, a nongovernmental organization. “And if nothing is done about the policy … then we have a bleak future.”
One evening, as the light waned and the air chilled, Annette hunched over a smoldering fire, preparing nshima, or porridge. She wore a black T-shirt, colorful skirt and bright green flip-flops. Beneath a crown of unkempt hair, sweat rolled down her face. She was five months pregnant but barely showing. She spent most days tending to the field of maize and pumpkin behind the house. It’s an isolated area with no homes in sight, hushed but for chirping birds.
She’d heard some old classmates had returned to school after giving birth. She mentioned this to the farmer. “He seems not to be interested,” she says. “He tells me I am now a wife and mother. That breaks my heart.”
In school, Annette’s favorite subjects were English, civics and social studies. She hung on to those textbooks. Sometimes, she leafs through them.