Zimbabwean girls face increased risk of sexual exploitation, including child marriage, due to economic hardship and closed schools during the coronavirus pandemic, South African NGO Gender Links reported Monday.
“Poverty has been worsened in communities [due to economic shutdowns during the pandemic] and some families can opt to sacrifice their daughters [to child marriage] … it will save them from the hunger and other economic woes brought by the pandemic,” Zimbabwe’s Parliamentary Chairwoman on Education, Priscilla Misihairambwi Mushonga, told Gender Links.
The number of child marriages in Zimbabwe has increased during the pandemic, and “there [have been] many girls being married off, however, with few being reported,” Mushonga says. Teenage pregnancies across the country are also “on the rise,” she added.
Zimbabwe ordered schools closed this year in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus, forcing many young girls who normally sought “refuge” from abusive households to remain trapped at home indefinitely, increasing their risk of sexual abuse, according to the report.
“The deepening poverty owing to loss of livelihoods brought about [by the pandemic]” combined with “perennial droughts in Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland South Province, are driving a number of families to marry off their under-age daughters,” the report states.
Zimbabwe technically outlawed child marriages in 2016, though the recent increase in the practice indicates that many in the country ignore the official ban.
Whistleblowing journalist Hopewell Chin’ono, who has openly criticized the practice of child marriage in Zimbabwe, was arrested this week after upsetting the Zimbabwean government by reporting on the Health Ministry’s corrupt procurement of coronavirus medical supplies, New Zimbabwe reported Monday.
Chin’ono’s reporting on the alleged fraud within Zimbabwe’s Health Ministry led authorities to open an investigation into Health Minister Obadiah Moyo. Police arrested Moyo in mid-June “on allegations of corruption regarding a $60-million deal to procure [coronavirus] test kits and medical equipment.” Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa then fired the health minister in early July for “conduct inappropriate for a government minister,” South Africa’s News24 reported.
Police also arrested Jacob Ngarivhume, the leader of the minor opposition party Transform Zimbabwe, on Monday on the same charges as Chin’ono: “inciting public violence.” Ngarivhume had been organizing an anti-government protest for July 31, Voice of America Zimbabwe reports.
Following news of Chin’ono and Ngarivhume’s arrests on Monday, Zimbabwe’s opposition MDC party accused the state of “persecuting a journalist for exposing government corruption.” A Zimbabwe government official later responded to this allegation by tweeting that journalists were “not above the law,” the BBC reported.
“[T]he incident comes at a time of rising tensions in Zimbabwe, with hyperinflation strangling the economy, and talk of a new round of mass protests against Zanu-PF, the party that has run the country since independence,” BBC Africa notes.
“Zimbabwe’s government promised reforms and economic growth after former President Robert Mugabe was ousted from power three years ago,” the news outlet writes. “But critics say it has reverted to its old habits of repression and corruption.”