MUREHWA, Zimbabwe (AP) — Inside a sparsely furnished two-room home in rural Zimbabwe, a three-month-old baby cries. His mother, Virginia Mavhunga, spends her days making trips to the well with a bucket on her head, selling fruits and vegetables at the roadside, cooking, cleaning, washing clothes — she has too much on her hands to offer her child, Tawananyasha, much comfort.
“That's my life now, every day,” the new mother said.
Between the chores of her strict routine, Virginia prepares her four younger siblings for school and helps them with homework when they return. It's these tasks that hit Virginia the hardest — because, at age 13, she, too, would rather be in school.
Virginia is part of a steep increase in pregnancies among girls and teenagers reported in Zimbabwe and other southern African countries during the pandemic. Zimbabwe has long struggled with such pregnancies and child marriages. Before COVID-19 hit, one of every three girls in the country was wed before age 18, many with unplanned pregnancies, because of lax enforcement of laws, widespread poverty, and cultural and religious practices.
The spread of the novel coronavirus intensified the situation. The country of 15 million people imposed a strict lockdown in March 2020, closing schools for six months and reopening them only intermittently. Girls in particular were left idle and shut out from access to contraceptives and clinics; the troubles of impoverished families worsened.
Many girls became victims of sexual abuse or looked to marriage and pregnancy as a way out of poverty, advocates and officials said. Before the pandemic, many such girls were “relegated as a lost cause,” said Taungana Ndoro, an education official in Zimbabwe.
But faced with the rising numbers, the government in August 2020 changed a law that had long banned pregnant students from schools. Activists and authorities hailed the move as a significant step in the developing nation, but so far the new policy has largely failed. Most girls haven't returned to school, with authorities and families citing economic hardship, deep-seated cultural norms, and stigma and bullying in class.
Virginia tried to return to school while pregnant under the policy change. Officials encouraged her and her parents. But she was the butt of jokes and the subject of gossip in a community not accustomed to seeing a pregnant girl in a school uniform.
“People would laugh at me. Some would point and ask in ridicule, 'What's up with that belly?'” she said, looking at a photo of herself in the purple uniform. She has since sold it for $2 to pay for the baby's clothing and other needs.
Virginia said she had hoped the older man who impregnated her would marry her. Despite initial promises, he ultimately denied paternity, she said. She and her family didn't follow through on a statutory rape case with police, despite Zimbabwean law putting the age of consent at 16.
Zimbabwe does have figures on pregnancies in girls who drop out of school — and while they show an alarming increase, officials say they, too, likely reflect an undercount, as many girls simply leave without giving a reason.
Across Africa, Zimbabwe isn't alone: During the pandemic, Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, South Africa and Zambia “all recorded a steep rise in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, which has contributed to a reported increase in pregnancies among young and adolescent girls,” according to an Amnesty International report. The continent has one of the highest pregnancy rates among adolescents in the world, according to the United Nations, and Zimbabwe and a handful of other nations now have laws or policies to protect girls' education while pregnant.
At first, Virginia's parents — who try to support the family by sorting market items for sale and getting their drought-damaged land ready for growing again — wanted to pursue a statutory rape case against the older man who impregnated her. But they gave up when he was released on bail and said they now hope he'll take care of the baby.
Virginia's father ignored advice from neighbors to make his daughter leave home. Her mother wanted to protect her, and that included keeping her out of school and away from harassment.
Virginia vows to return to school someday, though. She misses her classes, her peers. She wants to graduate and be accepted to a university, so she can get a degree and repay her parents' faith in her by building them a bigger home.
“I would rather return to school than get married,” she said. “I am not afraid of going back to school once my child is older. They may laugh at me now, but I am dedicating all my spare time and weekends to reading and catching up.
“This is not the end of the road, just a forced break.”