When her 60-year-old grandfather demanded that she leave her latest job as a maid to take care of him, 17-year-old Natsikayi Chaukura threw in the towel.
Conniving with her 20-year-old boyfriend, Natsikayi eloped last March, picking marriage versus a life of struggle to feed herself and her grandfather, the closest relative on both sides of her family. She has no recollection of her parents who died when she was a toddler, she says.
“I just had to run away,’’ Natsai said in an interview at her boyfriend’s homestead near Mbire Centre, Mashonaland Central province. ``There was nothing I could do. This was far better than the living conditions I was subjected to. Why should I be looking after an adult when I am a child?’’
[READ: 23 million farmers in drought-hit Southern Africa]
Food is becoming scarce in large parts of rural Zimbabwe after rains failed for a second season, compounding living conditions in an economy that’s contracting with just a fifth of workers in formal employment. United Nations agencies and the government are warning more than one in three Zimbabweans may need food assistance by next March.
The government has appealed for $1.5 billion in emergence support to cover the food and nutrition, agriculture, water, education, and health sectors. The appeal to date has yielded little support as has UNICEF’s appeal for just over $21 million to support its child centric projects such as nutrition, HIV/Aids, education and child protection services.
In Mbire, social workers say child marriages are on the rise, in part due to the food shortages. Shortly after we interviewed Natsikayi, the local village childcare worker brought the story of a headman who tried to extort $700 after his 16-year-old daughter, a minor under Zimbabwean law, eloped to a local man. The headman eventually settled for a cow to keep the matter from the police.
George Nyarugwe, the Acting District Administrator, said at the local clinics there was growing anecdotal evidence of forced child marriages with many of the young mothers telling nurses they were forced to marry because of the drought in the traditionally rain starved area, which lies in the Zambezi escarpment, near the border with Zambia.
Similar cases have been reported in Mt Darwin in the country’s northeast and Seke, near Harare, according to the Zimbabwe Vulnerability Assessment Committee report released in January.
``There is insufficient food and young girls are being married off,’’ Nyaruygwe said in an interview. The government, through departments such as the Women’s Affairs and Social Welfare ministry, was working with communities to combat the scourge, he said.
Mbire is among Zimbabwe’s ten most food insecure districts with a 55 per cent rating, according to the government. Buhera, which like Mbire lies in one of the country’s driest regions, tops the list, followed by Umguza in Matebeleland North.
The drought, which has left some 41 million people in southern Africa facing hunger, threatens as many as 1.9 million children in Zimbabwe alone, according to the latest ZimVAC report released last month.
Between last December and April, UNICEF says 3,042 new child protection cases were reported in 65 districts in Zimbabwe, with child neglect showing the highest incidence at 568, followed by sexual abuse at 306 and physical abuse at 218. So far, the UN agency has assisted 13,568 children and plans to train government, Non-Government Organisation and community social workers to better protect children in drought afflicted areas.
``UNICEF’s focus has been on strengthening coordination of the emergency response, strengthening situation monitoring, and sensitising actors responsible for disaster management and response as well civil society on the child protection risks that children are facing because of the drought,’’ the UN agency said in a statement.
Jane Muita, its acting representative in Zimbabwe said the organisation has seen an increase in child marriages as food shortages have worsened and families use these forced unions as a coping mechanism.
``In our assessment we know it is likely to increase,’’ she said in an interview in Harare. ``When there is no food for adults, there is no food for mothers and there is no food for children.’’
Already there was growing evidence of increasing malnutrition among children with some districts reporting severe acute malnutrition rates as high as seven per cent from around 0.7 per cent during normal seasons, she said. This, as a result of mothers reducing feeding frequencies from the recommended six to seven times, to as low as one, as the content and quality of food was also cut.
In Mbire, the World Food Programme has already started food distribution, targeting the vulnerable including child headed households. In parts of the country, gender based violence was also on the rise, according to NGOs.
``When families can’t feed their children they are left with very few options,’’ Muita said. ``It is worrying because you also begin to see issues of violence increase.’’
Zimbabwe’s child marriage prevalence rate of 31 per cent places it among some of the highest rates in Africa. NGOs attribute the high number to poverty, lack of education and some religious beliefs. Across the continent, the World Health Organization estimates 14 million children between the ages of 15 and 19 give birth each year.
``The Zimbabwean government should show that it is serious about tackling the scourge of child marriage and raise the minimum age to 18,” Human Rights Watch Senior Africa Researcher Dhewa Mavhinga was quoted as saying by the Newsday newspaper at a workshop discussing the scourge earlier last month.
Natsai’s voice breaks as she relates stories of repeated beatings when she stayed with one of her mother’s sisters, who accused her of not working hard enough. She wants to go back to school even if she has children. However, until the government and NGOs provide more resources, her cry and that of many in her condition, will remain unanswered.