Every year, more than 3,000 young girls are raped in Zimbabwe - often by members of their own families. With the number of cases increasing, Zimbabwe's government has launched a national campaign to tackle the issue, which is causing great trauma and new HIV infections.
Neria* (16) still has vivid memories of the drama that unfolded when her uncle raped her, two years ago. Her uncle took advantage of the fact that she had been entrusted to him by her parents, before they went to find work in South Africa.
Tears streaming down her cheeks, Neria explains the events that led to the rape. "My parents left me in the custody of my uncle and his wife," she says. "I stayed with them and everything was just perfect until one day." Neria hesitates as she tries to explain what she calls the "evil" moment of her life.
"I was seated in my bedroom, which I shared with one of my nieces. It was midday, and nobody was at home, when my uncle came home from work saying he has left some important documents that were needed. Little did I know he had a hidden agenda," she says.
After the rape, Neria was so traumatised she decided not to tell anyone. But the next day, when she went to school, her teacher noticed there was something strange about the way she walked and decided to talk to her.
"When my teacher asked me, I was afraid to say anything. The next thing I knew, the police were involved," says Neria. "My uncle's wife was so shocked that she almost collapsed when she heard the news. The courts sentenced him to 20 years in prison. But the biggest problem now is that I am HIV positive because of my uncle," she sobs.
Campaign against rape
Recently, the government of Zimbabwe launched the national campaign against rape. This is part of a strategy adopted by the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Rape, set up early this year to deal with the scourge.
Speaking at the campaign launch, in June this year, Zimbabwe's police superintendent Mutema said women and girls continue to face a wide spectrum of violence and the campaign was a concerted effort in the fight against rape.
"There has been a four per cent increase in the rape of juveniles from 3,168 in 2012 to 3,297 in 2013. From January to May this year, 1,494 juveniles were raped, compared to 1,384 during the same period last year," said Mutema. He added that most of the rape cases were perpetrated by parents or guardians.
Root causes of rape
Minister of women's affairs, gender and community development, Oppah Muchinguri, said the government had realised the need for a multi-sectoral approach in combating rape and sexual abuse and established an Inter-Ministerial Committee on Rape to deal with the issue.
"The committee was set up with the mandate to carry out thorough investigations into the causes of rape and gender-based violence, focusing on the possible solutions to the current rise in the cases of rape involving both women and girls," she said.
Muchinguri added that the committee had discovered social and economic root causes of rape, including drug and alcohol abuse.
"As a way of preventive measures, we will sensitise community leaders and raise public awareness on rape. We will align existing laws to constitutional laws, increase male involvement and engage men in identifying preventive measures to stop them from raping," she said.
Vice president Joyce Mujuru reiterated that rape is totally unacceptable in Zimbabwe and said the government is committed to ending the vice. She said: "To this effect, a number of laws have been passed including the new Constitution of Zimbabwe, the Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act, the Domestic Violence Act and other pieces of legislation."
UN support for campaign
United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) country representative Dr Basile Tambashe, who was also at the launch, said his organisation will donate a colposcopy machine, which is used for examinations of victims of rape and sexual violence.
According to a UNAIDS report: "Studies have shown that partner violence can increase the risk of HIV infection by around 50 per cent and that one in three women experience violence by their intimate partner during their lifetime. There is also evidence that violence, or the fear of violence, undermines access to treatment, care and support services for women living with HIV."
United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon said: "Violence has a drastic impact on the health of women and children and is inextricably linked to a higher prevalence of HIV. That is why I have made ending violence against women and girls a top priority for the United Nations."
Not her real name