By Mhlomuli Ncube

Zhopembe Primary School is located 70km away from the border town of Beitbridge. The rudimentary school is off the main road from Bulawayo. The premises there are makeshift buildings which had to be converted into a schooling environment.

Save for a block that is still under construction and another one built a few years ago, nothing resembles an academic institution except the presence of school children clad in their uniforms. This little known school has an enrolment of 140 pupils. Most of these children who come from poor families who cannot afford to send them to any facilities better than these travel long distances to and from school every day. However some parents opted to have their children stay as the school, thus creating makeshift boarding facilities. Due to its unplanned nature and lack of resources, it has resulted in 44 children staying at the school compound.

A building which serves as a classroom during the day is turned into a dormitory at night. 40 young boys sleep in there. Another one houses three teachers and 20 girls. The girls sleep in a single common lounge. At one time, the space was not enough and some of these little ones would sleep outside. Among these young learners are some who are in Early Childhood Development. The children, some as young as four have to grow up fast in this environment. They have to cook and wash on their own as they try to find their own space in this harsh environment.

One of the teachers at the school has painted a gloomy picture of the scenario.

 “These children are too young. Sometimes you feel pity for them and there is not much that you can do. You see them cooking on their own there,” she says, pointing to an open space where a 10-year old girl is lighting up a fire to start cooking. 

There are, however, untold stories of sexual abuse and pregnancies among these little ones. Since 2013, six such cases have been dealt with. There are two girl child victims who are still attending school. Theirs is a very sad story which teachers relate with heavy hearts.

“Their stepfather is said to have been the abuser. However, the story is taking a new dimension as the mother has suddenly started not co-operating with investigations to nail her husband,” they reveal.

The Zimbabwe Republic Police Victim Friendly Unit says it is grappling with several incidents of that nature. What complicates matters is that most of these abused children come from very poor families and the abuser is usually the breadwinner in the family.

“In such instances the mother who should stand with the child is torn in between. On the other side she wants her husband because he is the only source of livelihood and on the other she has an obligation to stand in for her abused child,” says a police officer who works with the Beitbridge Victim Friendly Unit. 

The issue is actually much bigger than most people know. There are still many people in the community who do not want to talk about it. Even during a meeting between the school authorities, police and the local leadership, those sentiments of not wanting to comprehend the situation are visible among some parents. One elderly woman stands up to speak:

“We would rather have her getting married so that at least she gets someone to look after her and we get a little in return also in the form of a bride-price,” she says.

Even though the law enforcement officers try to point out to her that such behaviour is criminal and might lead to prosecution, she is not moved. One can almost tell that these views are shared by many others in the community.

Poverty has been cited as the major reason for this cruel reality where families are prepared to let go of these young girls for a mere token.

“To most of them, they would rather offload the burden of looking after their girl child and also hope that when they marry her off, they will get a bride price,” Mr Robert Muleya of Swereki village said.

Muleya who has made it his mission to lead an anti-child marriages crusade says it is not easy considering the proximity of Beitbridge to South Africa.

“Some men from the village who work in South Africa come here portraying flashy lifestyles. The poor girls who learn under these difficult circumstances end up falling for them and are enticed, some are as young as 11 or 12,” Muleya adds.

Member of Parliament for the Beitbridge West constituency Honourable Ruth Maboyi says she is battling everyday to change mindsets.

“Parents need to know that education as an attempt to giving children a better future is a better alternative than marrying off young girls. This is not only criminal, it also robs these innocent little ones a chance to be better people in their lives,” said Maboyi.

Another parliamentarian Honourable Lisa Nsingo says besides educating the local communities on the evils of marrying off young girls and protecting perpetrators, efforts must be put into robust policing.

“Whenever a case like that is reported, the community, teachers and the police must work together to bring perpetrators to book. We see cases that take long to conclude and most of those we are not even sure whether the abusers end up in jail where they should be,” laments the parliamentarian.

The United Nations Children’s Fund says although the prevalence of child marriages is decreasing worldwide, action will need to be stepped up to achieve the global target of ending the practice by 2030. The biggest tragedy, however, according to UNICEF, is that when a girl is forced to marry as a child, she faces immediate and lifelong consequences.

“Her chances of finishing school decrease while the likelihood of being abused by her husband and suffering complications during pregnancy increases. There are also huge societal consequences, and higher risk of intergenerational cycles of poverty,” said Anju Malhotra, UNICEF’s Principal Gender Advisor while presenting a paper on Child Marriages in March, 2018.

In this environment of struggles like the Zhopembe Primary School one, the sad, tired and visibly traumatised faces of these young learners are a story of endured pain. But the questions can only be; for how long and till when?