The Herald (Harare)

29 November 2012

Zimbabwe: Empower a Girl, Empower a Country

AS Zimbabwe joins the rest of the world in commemorating World Aids Day tomorrow (December 1) in Dulibadzimu, Beitbridge; it is time we remember orphaned and vulnerable children.

This year's theme is "Getting to Zero - Zero New Infections, Zero Stigma and Discrimination and Zero Aids Related Deaths."

The United Nations defines an orphan as a child between the age of 0 to 17 years who has lost one or both parents. Worldwide, it is estimated that more than 16 million children under the age of 17 have been orphaned by Aids. About 14,8 million of these children live in sub-Saharan Africa with Zimbabwe accounting for 16 percent of them orphans. The orphans live under difficult conditions.

Hatcliffe Extension, which is an informal settlement, has many such orphans who moved to the area when their parents could no longer able to provide decent shelter either because they were bedridden or had died. Today over 500 orphans live in Hatcliffe Extension under ultra poverty.

Christine now 19 and her three sisters' aged 12, five and two have been living at the informal settlement for nearly a decade. They have struggled to make ends meet. Twelve-year-old Tinevimbo's health condition, who frequently misses school, has not helped matters.

They lived in a shack with their bedridden mother for many years. Christine being the eldest is the one now heading this household. Their father passed away in 2010 just before the birth of the youngest child in this family.

Fortunately due to the prevention from mother to child transmission of HIV programme launched by the Government and its partners, the little girl was born HIV negative.

Since the birth of the last girl their mother who was on Anti-retroviral treatment was continuously sick. This forced Christine out of school to fend for the family and her ill mother.

She was forced to go and work in the nearby farms. Work on the farms is hard and one is paid according to the hours one has worked but she has to endure it to put something on the table.

Christine says of her work: "Work on the farms is hard; if one fails to go to work because of the demand from an ill parent then one is not paid that day as they would have missed work.

"I missed work on many days and ended up getting little or nothing at the end of the week. Without money my siblings and sick mother could have starved. I had no choice but to give into the demands of men who needed sexual favours from me," she said.

The option of sexual favours has taken its toll on the girl as she had her first child at a age of 17. This further worsened the situation by bringing in an extra mouth to feed. But Christine's problems did not end there, the following year she had another baby.

"Since I had no power to negotiate the use of condoms I again fell pregnant when my first child was barely a year old. I cried a lot but did not see abortion as an option," said the young girl who looks weary for her age.

Christine said she is not sure of the father of one of the babies.

"I know the fathers to my other baby but he has refused to help me in looking after the kid. He said he cannot help me since he has own families to look after," she added.

The dawn of 2012 saw more challenges for Christine as her mother left a three months old baby. With two kids of her own and siblings to fend for, Christine is not in control of her sexual reproductive health.

Currently she struggles to feed the family, let alone clothe them, buy blankets and pay school fees. They share a one-roomed shack, which leaks during the rain season.

Christine has not had an education and is currently receiving tailoring skills from Vision HIV/Aids. It is with people like Christine in mind that we should use the World Aids Day to think of about the orphaned and vulnerable children.

"This festive season we would like to see that no child living under difficult circumstances goes to bed hungry," said Mr Charles Nyoni, Vision HIV/Aids Advocacy and Communications manager.

The organisation runs empowering projects for orphans in Hatcliffe Extension.

A survey by Plan Zimbabwe revealed that educating a girl is empowering. Girls spend most of their income on their families as compared to boys.

"Women spend 90 percent of their income on their families as compared to men, who only use 35 percent of their income on their families," said the study taken in 2010.

There are health risks for a young girl in falling pregnant. An early sexual debut has dire consequences on the health of the girl. Christine has been exposed to STIs, HIV, the human pappiloma virus and trauma of being dumped after each relationship.

Babies born to teenage mothers are more likely to suffer health, social and emotional problems. Taking Christine's babies into account, the cycle of poverty extends to them if no urgent help is brought to the family.

Christine keeps endangering her health, as she does not give her body enough time to rest and recover.

"Women who become pregnant during their teens have an increased risk for complications, such as premature labour and socio-economic consequences as well," said a nurse speaking on condition of anonymity.

"If they are under hospital supervision, they may end up going to caesarean section because the birth canal itself is not yet developed for such a complex process.

"If they give birth at home and encounter complications then it's even sad because they can die while giving birth," she added.

Households with orphans are more likely to become poorer if no help is extended to them. Besides a teenager not being able to look after a baby properly, teenage pregnancy is a health hazard that puts the mother's life at risk.

In Zimbabwe, the failure rate of the teen marriages is not documented but is evident in most communities.

There are numerous programmes targeting orphans and vulnerable children in Zimbabwe.

There is the National Plan of Action for OVCs, the National Strategy on children in difficult circumstances and the OVCs programmes implemented in partnership with faith-based organisations, community-based organisations and NGOs.

However, evidence on the ground points to few orphans having accessed support in the last year from the programmes. The resources are reaching very few orphans.

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