CHINYUNYU, ZAMBIA – She was 16, a student, dreamed of becoming a teacher. He was 28, he was a farmer, he ran a small grocery store. They met last year when the coronavirus pandemic destroyed Annette’s world. His mother, a maid, lost her job. His father, a construction worker, lost his. The family’s corn plot wasn’t enough to feed Annette and her five younger siblings.
“We had no means to survive,” he says.
Slender and calm, Annette lives in a farming community east of Lusaka, the nation’s capital, an expanse of corn and cattle so quiet you can hear the rustle of the leaves in the wind. With lessons canceled due to the coronavirus and virtual learning impossible without electricity and a reliable internet, his days have grown empty. He lingered in the supermarket, chatting with the farmer.
“We had serious difficulties with food at home and this man was always available to help,” she says. Grocery shop. Sometimes money. “I fell in love with him. This is how our relationship began. “
In Annette’s village, the outlook for the girls is bleak. Poverty is rampant and finishing secondary school is a challenge. Girls often trade sexual favors for financial security, Annette says. “My dream was to never fall into the same trap as most of the girls in my community. But the challenges were beyond me. “
Once their relationship became intimate, Annette and the farmer did not use contraception; he mistakenly believed it would make her sterile. He missed a cycle in November. In December another.
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In Zambia, pregnancy all too often steals a girl’s ambitions. Usually the fault lies with poverty. According to the World Bank, more than half of the country earns less than 214 Zambian kwachas (about $ 9) per month. Some families have no choice but to marry their pregnant daughters and transfer financial responsibilities to their husbands.
The age of consent in Zambia is 16, while the adult age is 18. Under the law, it is illegal to “marry or marry a student who is a child”. However, according to the country’s 2018 Demographic and Health Survey, around 15% of girls and women between the ages of 15 and 19 are married. Among men and boys of the same age, only 1% are married.
Before the pandemic, Zambian officials launched a nationwide effort to reduce what is among the highest rates of child marriages in the world. They prioritized sex education, reproductive health services and anti-poverty programs, said Elizabeth Phiri, Minister of Gender at the time of the interview. The first results were encouraging: from 2014 to 2018, the most recent numbers available, the percentage of married girls decreased. But the pandemic’s school closures and economic despair have thwarted the effort.
“My dream was to never fall into the same trap as most of the girls in my community. But the challenges were beyond me. “
After some students returned to class in June 2020 to prepare for exams, the Zambia National Education Coalition surveyed 500 schools across the country. Of nearly 48,000 female students, more than 6 percent have not returned, says executive director George Hamusunga. Most were pregnant, married, or both.
“Teen pregnancy is something that has troubled us for a while. It has gotten worse with this pandemic, “says Jobbicks Kalumba, Permanent Secretary for Technical Services at the Ministry of General Education.” There is little we can do when children are not in school. We always encourage parents to ensure they talk about sex. with their children, they look after them and keep them busy with their studies at home ”.
The pandemic stressors forcing girls into marriage are not unique to Zambia. The United Nations Children’s Fund, known as UNICEF, estimates that as many as 10 million more girls around the world are at risk of becoming child brides over the next decade.
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Once pregnant, Annette had few options. (She asked to use her name to avoid excessive stigma.) She considered having an abortion but didn’t know she could do it in a hospital. Her friends advised her to drink herbal tea to end the pregnancy, but she feared it would kill her.
Instead, he told his parents. His father passed away. Her mother, Janet, was more practical. “I don’t have the means to look after her and the baby,” says Janet, whose surname has been hidden to protect her daughter’s identity. “So the man who got her pregnant has to take responsibility.”
There was no wedding ceremony, no celebration. One night, Annette’s parents left her at the farmer’s house: two rooms modeled in clay with a thatched roof. The farmer refused to be named or interviewed.
“My parents are struggling and they couldn’t even bear another burden,” says Annette. “So I’m 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 went back to school.
Many Zambian girls give up their education to raise children. The problem is particularly acute in the least populated and poorest areas of the country. According to a 2015 World Bank report, nearly 80% of girls who drop out of school due to pregnancy live in rural areas.
Annette attended a large school with students from the surrounding farming communities. “Every trimester or month, we see girls who don’t show up for school and when we investigate, we’re told, ‘So and so is pregnant or married,'” says teacher Andrew Nyirenda. The staff encourages parents to bring their daughters back, but this rarely happens.
“This is really heartbreaking, especially if a child is really smart,” he says. “But in the end, 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 the school was closed. So did Mary, 16, who is in a different degree and identified with her name to avoid stigma. Mary’s friends frightened her from using birth control and no adults 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 contracting the coronavirus,” he says. She gave birth but did not get married. Even so, she hasn’t gone back to school – she has no one to look after her daughter.
The Zambian ministry of education requires schools to have the parents or guardian of a pregnant student sign a form agreeing that the girl re-enroll. But there is no way to enforce that commitment. Lawyers are pushing for a law to change things.
“The future of this nation is in these girls,” says Costern Kanchele, acting director of the Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia, a non-governmental organization. “And if nothing is done about politics … then we have a bleak future.”
One evening, as the light faded and the air cooled, Annette bent over a blazing fire, making nshima, or porridge. She wore a black T-shirt, colorful skirt and bright green flip flops. Under a crown of unkempt hair, sweat ran down her face. She was five months pregnant but barely saw herself. He spent most of his days tending the corn and pumpkin patch behind the house. It is an isolated area with no houses in sight, silent but for the chirping of birds.
He had heard that some old classmates had returned to school after giving birth. He talked about this to the farmer. “He seems not to be interested,” he says. “He tells me that I am now a wife and a mother. This breaks my heart. “
At school, Annette’s favorite subjects were English, civics and social studies. She held on to those textbooks. Sometimes, he browses them.
[ https://globalpressjournal.com/africa/zambia/sixteen-pregnant-precipice/ https://d26toa8f6ahusa.cloudfront.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/07/30214746/a-quiet-place-part-2-bigs-16.pdf