October 21, 2012
October 21, 2012
BULAWAYO, ZIMBABWE – Thabisile Mthethwa, 18, is a single mother who sells vegetables to support herself and her two children in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city. Her hand-me-down clothes hang on her slim body.
She became pregnant at 15 after having sex with a 42-year-old “sugar daddy,” a common name for older men who offer gifts to girls if they have sex with them. She says girls don’t always understand what sex is when they agree to these transactions.
“I had no idea about sex,” Mthethwa says. “But because I wanted to please this man who had promised me a cell phone, money and free transport to school every day, I did as I was told.”
Even though she had learned about reproduction as a broad subject in her science class at school, she says she had no idea how it applied to her own body. She believed at the time that if she took painkillers immediately after sex, she could not get pregnant.
She eventually began to get stomach cramps. She went to a clinic, where nurses informed her that she was pregnant.
When she confronted her partner about the pregnancy, he threatened her with violence.
Mthethwa says she considered abortion but decided against it when she realized she had no one to help her through it. But she also had few people to support her during her pregnancy.
“I wanted to end my life,” she says. “I attempted all the methods of committing suicide I had heard about, but none of them worked. I just wanted to die because I was so ashamed of the disappointment I had caused my family.”
She says her father disowned her, so she stayed with her aunt for most of her pregnancy.
The Zimbabwe government announced a new policy in 2010 that entitles girls who get pregnant while in school to three months of maternity leave instead of expelling them. But after delivering her baby, Mthethwa returned to school for less than a month before bullying and ridicule from her peers forced her to permanently drop out.
“I had no access to any counseling that would have prepared me for life back in class after what other students perceived as an embarrassing episode,” she says.
She also no longer felt any connection to the girls in her class.
“I was now a mother learning with girls,” she explains as she nurses her infant.
Eventually, her family forgave her and allowed her to come back home. But already struggling to take care of her and her siblings, her parents could not afford to support her baby.
She had to find a way to fend for herself, which led her to engage in sexual intercourse with another sugar daddy in exchange for financial support. She soon became pregnant with her second child.
Mthethwa says that her life would have been different if she had received more support to continue her education.
A lack of sex education makes girls in Zimbabwe vulnerable to becoming pregnant or contracting sexually transmitted diseases from men who have sex with them in exchange for gifts or as a traditional “cure” for HIV and AIDS. Social workers urge the government to extend sex education from secondary schools to primary schools. But parents and government officials squabble among themselves about whether this would prevent teenage pregnancy and HIV transmission or promote promiscuity.
Women engage in sexual activity nearly two years earlier than men, according to the 2011 Zimbabwe Demographic and Health Survey. Roughly one-quarter of women ages 15 to 19 in Zimbabwe have begun childbearing. Fertility increases as education and economic status decrease.
Mthethwa’s story sounds like that of many young women in the country, says Tatenda Gavi, an advocacy officer with Bulawayo Women in Development, a nongovernmental organization that champions the rights of women and girls in the country, during a telephone interview.
Gavi says that difficult economic conditions in the country force teenage girls to engage in intergenerational relationships with sugar daddies, who promise them the world in return for sex.
“These girls are not only at risk of pregnancy,” she says. “They are also vulnerable to HIV and sexually transmitted diseases.”
She says that traditional beliefs about HIV increase transmission risks for girls and young women.
“These men don’t really care about safe sex,” she says, “which is worsened by beliefs among older men living with the HIV virus that having sexual relations with a virgin will cure them of the condition.”
The social stigma of having an unmarried daughter pregnant with the child of a sugar daddy, many who have sexually transmitted diseases, discourages parents from reporting sugar daddies in order to shield their families from harsh criticism from neighbors. Instead, they approach the older man to pay for “damages” in exchange for not pressing charges, which they say could be more financially beneficial than sending the sugar daddy to prison.
“Because the older men fear possible arrest, they agree to pay something to the family only to disappear forever,” Dube says. “And from there on, there cannot be any legal recourse.”
In 2000, the Zimbabwean government introduced sex education in secondary schools to students ages 13 and older to combat the high rate of pregnancies, Gavi says. But it’s not enough to prevent teen pregnancies because the education barely touches on contraception, according to her organization.
Bulawayo Women in Development also advocates for the government to introduce sex education in primary school. The country needs to accept that children in primary school are sexually active no matter how uncomfortable the prospect may be, Gavi says.
“These girls need to be educated in sexual and reproductive health, get access to youth-friendly services and empowering life skills so that unplanned pregnancies do not automatically translate to broken dreams at such a tender age,” Gavi says.
Some parents say it is a wise idea to teach children about sexual relationships in school. But others say this would automatically influence them to experiment with their peers.
It is a cultural taboo to even mention sex to children until they are ready for matrimony, says one mother by the last name of Lunga, who declined to give her first name because of the traditional belief that it’s disrespectful to address elders by their first names.
“When they start teaching that in schools, they are giving our children the go-ahead to engage in sexual relationships,” Lunga says.
Lunga also says that the effort to re-enroll girls who become pregnant after they deliver their babies sends the wrong message to other girls and will cause disciplinary problems in school.
“My child is well-behaved, so why should she be spoiled by irresponsible girls who engaged in sexual relationships before their time?” she asks, fuming.
But Zenzele Banda, whose 16-year-old daughter got pregnant before her final Ordinary Level examinations in Bulawayo, disagrees.
“We are human and we make mistakes, but what’s most important is to learn from these mistakes,” Banda says passionately. “If we rebuke our children and chase them away from home for being pregnant, we are destroying their future. But if we support them to go back to school, we are building them into responsible parents.”
These differences of opinion also exist within the government. In early 2012, several Ministry of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture officials seconded the National AIDS Council of Zimbabwe’s recognition that schoolchildren are sexually active and subsequent proposal to distribute condoms in schools.
But Lazarus Dokora, deputy minister of education, sport, arts and culture, immediately dismissed the idea. He made statements to the local press that the proposal was culturally unacceptable.
The ministry policy is to focus on HIV and AIDS education rather than giving schoolchildren condoms, which would promote promiscuity, says David Coltart, minister of education, sport, arts and culture.
“If we allow condoms in schools, it would be impossible to make them available to some and not others,” he said in a phone interview. “For example, if we put condoms in boys’ toilets, even 12-year-olds would have access to them and start experimenting.”
But one senior Ministry of Education officer in Bulawayo says there continues to be policy differences within the ministry. He declined to be named because this information is not public. Because of the lack of consensus on policy, some school principals are deciding on sex education and condom distribution within their own school development associations.
Linda Khumalo, the headmistress of a secondary school in Bulawayo, urges the government to employ counselors in schools to help girls who become pregnant to return to school.
“What we need to realize is that these girls go through heavy psychological trauma dealing with being pregnant at such a tender age, giving up their dreams and being forced into motherhood without being prepared for it,” she says. “Therefore, there is need for counseling in order to allow them to accept their new circumstances.”
Makhosikazi Dube, a social worker, counsels families of pregnant girls at local clinics in Bulawayo. But she says it’s difficult because girls come to the clinics alone or with aunts, who resist advice because they consider themselves solely responsible for nieces’ sexual and reproductive health education.
When families are present and willing to talk, Dube says she talks to the girls and parents separately and then talks to them together. The objective is to encourage the families to support their daughters regardless of whether they approve of their pregnancies.