15 November 2016

Zimbabwe: Chiredzi's Rebel Women Defy Cultural Norms

Roselyne Sachiti — "She left this waiting shelter three days ago and the husband, who did not buy anything for the baby, beat her up."Other pregnant women in the waiting mothers' shelter gave her baby clothes and he was not happy. What kind of man beats up a woman who has just given birth?

"Khale hanina achitsvala saka mwina mutatsika kutsvala hini." Loosely translated this Shangaan statement means "Long back we used to give birth, so why don't you do the same?"

This reaction is what many women like Spiwe Phiri (38) of Village 10 Chipimbe area, in Chiredzi, Masvingo Province, get from their husbands and in-laws whenever they raise the contentious issue of taking contraception to reduce unwanted pregnancies and thereby space children.

In this part of Zimbabwe, contraception is not a matter of choice but is viewed negatively as it "erodes" cultural beliefs like that of giving birth to as many children as possible. If anything, traditionally, matriarchs had a lot of influence on the use of family planning methods as limiting pregnancies would shrink lineage and are determined to see this through the end of time.

Because of the pill and Jadelle, young women who are now educated are rebelling against tradition. They have faced a serious backlash in the form of violence that includes physical beatings, financial, emotional and verbal abuse.

Here, the patriarchal society and matriarchs have not only oppressed women and limited their family planning choices, they have also barred younger women from enjoying their sexual reproductive health rights and the desire to control their fertility.

"When you raise the issue of family planning, my husband asks why I can't give birth to as many children as his mother did when I chose to marry into their family. As a result, I have given birth to six children and this pregnancy is the seventh. The children do not go to school because we cannot afford to pay fees," she said.

Phiri said her children and many others in the area end up herding cattle for a fee.

"When the child gets paid, the father takes the money. Some men here also take money from children. If you complain you are both assaulted. It's hard for women to speak, worse to negotiate contraception use," said Phiri.

Sad as this may seem, it gets more bizarre. Here, the men will do everything and anything to stop their wives from taking contraception.

In areas like Chizvirizvi, cases of men who violently remove Jadelle, a form of long-acting reversible contraception for women inserted into the arm, have been reported. Stories of how some men have used a razor blade or knife to remove Jadelle have been told too often in this community.

"The men know about Jadelle as some see it on the arms of sex workers they hire. We have seen and heard of women who have had their Jadelle forcibly removed by their husbands. Some women who choose Jadelle are beaten up daily and eventually go back to health facilities to plead to have it removed," said Phiri.

Some women are on the pill, and life has not been easy for them, too. In this part of Zimbabwe, patriarchy overrides the benefits of family planning. The husbands also do not allow their women to access the pill at their local clinic yet the same women carry the burden of taking care of the children.

And when the women rebel and go to access it without the husband's knowledge, most men have devised ways to sabotage them.

Villagers like Sekai Jonasi (24) of Village 4 Chizvirizvi have been both victim and witness. She has experienced, seen and heard all the stories of women who have been beaten up for taking contraception.

"We found out that in a bid to stop us from taking the pill some of the men immerse the pill packet into boiling water, let it dry in the sun and put it back in your bag. You find yourself pregnant yet you have been religiously taking the pill," said Jonasi.

She said the problem came when women discreetly took the pill and failed to conceive.

"We hide the pills in the bush and this is the only way we can take it. But the husbands count the years, and when you do not fall pregnant in their expected time frame, they beat you up asking why you have not been pregnant in a while. You will be beaten dead. We saw a man who beat his wife with barbed wire over the issue of family planning," added Jonasi.

The women blame it on custodians of culture. They say village heads and headmen are not doing enough to deter the abusive husbands when reports are made.

This upsets women like Esther Moyo (21) of Village 9 Chizvirizvi.

"Women are oppressed because of cultural practices people in this area value.

Men want many children. They don't want you to stop giving birth. When you complain, we are told women are always wrong. The village heads are worse. If you go to a village head, they might be given money by the husband. The husbands may even buy beer for the village heads. It is better to go to the chief as he usually refer such cases to the police," alleged Moyo who was joined by other women.

She said she and many women found it hard to leave their husbands.

"I was once married and my former husband left Zimbabwe for South Africa when I was six months pregnant and never returned. I remained in Zimbabwe and planted cotton. When I was heavily pregnant, I would carry a knapsack on my back. My former husband did not even bother to check how I was, send money or clothes for the baby. What he only sent was the baby's name when he heard I had given birth. A few days after giving birth, I would walk long distances to fetch water and leave the baby behind. My in-laws did not bother to help me. This was it for me. He did not want me to take contraception yet he did not want to be responsible for the child. My aunt who works at the council offices told me to leave and I left. I am in a second marriage and the situation is much better," she added.

Other women like Naume Gabaza (30) of Village 4 Chizvirizvi said she has also heard of how pills are "cooked".

"From the experience we have had through exposure and meetings with health officials, we now know what those that have been tampered with look like.

"My friend had her pills cooked and she did not notice any difference. I just looked at the packet once and told her that the pills had been tampered with. She suddenly realised why she fell pregnant while religiously taking contraception," she added.

Next to Chizvirizvi clinic, a couple walks past a mothers' waiting home. The woman is holding three day old baby while the husband, who is visibly irritated, is holding a bag. Like strangers, they walk one in front of the other towards a police station where the woman made a domestic violence report.

"She left this waiting shelter three days ago and the husband, who did not buy anything for the baby, beat her up. Other pregnant women in the waiting mothers' shelter gave her baby clothes and he was not happy. What kind of man beats up a woman who has just given birth? The same man does not allow his wife to take contraception," complained Gabaza.

According to a local non-governmental organisation, Msasa Project, Chiredzi reported 3 500 cases of gender-based violence in 2013 up from 1 800 in 2012.

Economic and conjugal issues constituted more than 60 percent of gender-based violence cases in this part of Zimbabwe. Family planning contributes immensely towards the reduction of unwanted pregnancies and helping in child spacing thereby also reducing maternal and newborn deaths while increasing educational and economic opportunities for women. This has led to healthier families and communities. Indeed, this has contributed to Zimbabwe's strides towards achieving sustainable development goals.

The Government of Zimbabwe showed commitment to family planning by establishing the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council(ZNFPC) through an Act of Parliament. The ZNFPC is a parastatal under the Ministry of Health and Child Care, mandated to coordinate, take leadership and support implementation of integrated Family Planning (FP)/Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) services in Zimbabwe.

ZNFPC has carried out extensive research on why women fail to access contraception and in a 2010 report titled "The unmet need for Family Planning in Zimbabwe, August 2010" findings were that the whole concept of contraception is understood differently by different people.

According to the report, respondents argued that family planning is something which was imposed by the West and is not compatible with African culture.

"A traditional leader in Mtshabezi area Matabeleland South Province mentioned that the concept of family planning was brought by white colonial settlers as a way of limiting population growth among the black majority but as that era is over, there is now no need to limit the populations. Some respondents also believe that family planning is only meant for those who are married and have had children before," the report says.

World Contraception Day was commemorated on September 26 under the befitting theme "It's your life, it's your responsibility."

As such, it is up to every Zimbabwean woman and society to uphold the responsibility of family planning despite cultural beliefs.

A healthy nation starts with healthy women and children.

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