Scores of farmers have committed suicides in the last three decades in the country driven mainly by family disputes following cotton and tobacco harvests.
Farmer suicides in the Guruve, Hurungwe, Mbire and Muzarabani districts in the northern most part of Zimbabwe were common particularly after farmers sold their crop and fight over the spoils with their spouses.
Most of the suicides were committed by male farmers out of shame after they abused money from cotton and tobacco sales.
Women too, out of pain and depression, would take their lives by drinking poison used in the treatment of the cotton crop.
Repeated domestic squabbles, humiliation and depression took a toll on many farmers in Guruve, Mbire, Hurungwe and Muzarabani.
"Harvest time was war time," says Floriana Maromo, 64, of Chidzomba Village in the Karambzungu area of Hurungwe District. "It was a time when men and women would have serious disputes over money.
"Whenever we sold cotton, tobacco and maize, there was no peace and harmony in our homes. Men could blow all the money on women and booze, leaving nothing for their families.
"Women could be beaten up for asking about the money. I lost a number of relatives who drank poison out of depression and pain. There was no one who could counsel them or offer support."
Kesina Nziramasanga, a gender ambassador of Bunda village in the Karereshi area of Hurungwe says harvest time bought untold hardships and misery to farmers.
"Men would control everything," she says. "Men wielded too much power and abused women. They controlled all the money and never budgeted with us women. The result were unending fights that led to more farmer suicides."
This situation also played out in Mbire and Muzarabani districts, the major cotton growing areas of the country.
"The situation in the past was bad," says Maidei Chaka, 54, a gender champion from Mandaza village at Mahuwe in Mbire District. "We never knew peace in our homes. After toiling on the land men would abuse all the money and leave nothing for their families.
"I lost several relatives through these family disputes, but now the situation has changed owing to the Spotlight Initiative which empowered us to fight gender based violence and promote collective family budgeting."
Stories on suicides had dire consequences for children and the community as a whole.
To address problems related to early child marriages, farmer suicides and sexual abuses in Hurungwe, Guruve, Mbire and Muzarabani, a consortia comprising Caritas, the Lower Guruve Development Association and other community based organisations (CBOs) are spearheading programmes to raise awareness on the impact of GBV on women and girls.
The programmes running under the Spotlight Initiative supported through a partnership between the European Union and the United Nations are aimed at ending violence against women and girls and harmful practices. Zimbabwe is among the 20 countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia-Pacific and the Caribbean which are participating in the four-year programme, which started in 2019 and ends this month for the first phase.
The country was supported by the EU to the tune of US$30 million for the first phase to help Zimbabwe meet some of its Sustainable Development Goals (SDG 3 and 5) on empowering women and girls to realise their full potential in a violent free, gender-responsive and inclusive environment.
"The Spotlight Initiative has played an important role in influencing local community structures to start dialogues around GBV issues and bring greater transparency and accountability in household management of crop harvest sales," says Pardon Chabata of Caritas and project coordinator for the Spotlight lnitiatives in Mashonaland West.
"I believe this is something that we can scale up here in Hurungwe in terms of coverage to reduce farmer suicides and fight GBV cases. Tobacco earnings are a big driver of GBV and we need to place much emphasis in promoting gender-based budgeting to help families to become more transparent and accountable in handling money from tobacco and cotton sales."
Maxwell Matimba, Councillor for Ward 3 in Hurungwe, hailed the initiative for bringing positive change in his district.
"Suicide cases have gone down significantly because of this initiative," he said. "We have been trained on gender based budgeting and empowered on how to deal with GBV cases.
"In the past we did not know how to handle the problem, but now we are quite confident about dealing with the issues. We have gender champions who are doing a wonderful job raising awareness about GBV issues in our community."
Norman Mtukudzi, the Fume village headman in Mahuwe, Mbire district, also says the initiative has peeled the eyes of men.
"In the past, we were in darkness," he said. "Violence and family disputes led to farmer suicides. Things have changed now and as a community we have been empowered on how to deal with the problems.
"Here in Mbire we held men's forums, raised awareness on GBV issues and encouraged men and women to hold gender-based budgeting to bring harmony and peace in our households. This is working now and cases of suicides are going down. Fights too, are going down as men and women appreciate each other's role in ending GBV."
However, the Covid-19 restrictions have affected the rolling out of their campaigns in the district.
"We are so keen to reach out with our messages against GBV to all our villages here in Mbire," he says.
"This initiative has brought so much hope in our people."
Adds another gender champion, Apolonia Manyudzwa of Mahuwe in Mbire: "This initiative has brought behaviour change among men. They now appreciate the value of dialogue, transparency and accountability in managing household funds.
"They now see more reason in giving women and children a voice over tobacco and cotton earnings. Even children are now being given their own share after a season's harvest.
"All this bring joy to households, children get their fees paid and in addition they get to buy clothes and other needs. This help them to stay interested in agriculture and value their parents."
UN Women country representative Delphine Serumaga is upbeat about the success, learning and experiences of implementing phase one of the Spotlight Initiative.
"As UN Women working with partners at different levels, we are pleased to have been able to successfully contribute towards ensuring that women and girls realise their full potential in a violence-free, gender-responsive and inclusive environment," she said.
"Going forward we expect to see the growth of a vibrant movement, driven from the grassroots. At community level we expect to see an evolving and sustained transformation were gender-based violence in all its forms is discouraged and not tolerated, hidden nor promoted."
Farmer suicides are a global problem and India ranks amongst the top countries that experience suicides of this nature.
According to figures released by India's National Crime Records Bureau in 2019, a total of 5 563 male farmers and 394 female farmers committed suicide, while agricultural labourers included 3 749 males and 575 females.
A report released in 2015 showed that around 257 000 farmers killed themselves between 1995 and 2010.
Most of the deaths were triggered by debts, crop failures and family disputes.
Without critical interventions such as the Spotlight Initiative, farmer suicides can rise over time, bringing untold hardships and misery to families left behind by bread winners even here in Zimbabwe.
The Spotlight Initiative has managed to help farmers cope with stress and avoid suicide, including domestic violence.
Very often, farmers in most rural areas have no easy access to counselling and support services. In this time, when cases of mental health are rising, rural farmers just deal with such problems by themselves.
And, when such a project comes on their doorstep to help them to develop a mobile crisis service, conduct suicide prevention training sessions and establish networks to address suicide, it is a huge bonus.
It then becomes the biggest part to spread awareness on GBV issues, while helping the country to attain its SDGs on girl and women empowerment and the fight against gender violence.