African Union heeds the voices of girls in distress

Catherine Mwauyakufa, CNS Correspondent, Zimbabwe
Tadiwanashe, 3rd from right, receiving a scholarship in Addis Ababa
Never in her wildest dreams did she ever think that she would fly! Never did she ever think that she would address heads of states and other important delegates in a pre-conference session. Yet, all this became a reality for Tadiwanashe Naghaina, a 19 year old rural girl from Murehwa, Zimbabwe.

She was chosen by the Rozaria Memorial Trust (RMT) to participate at the recent 31st Session of the 'Gender is My Agenda Campaign' (GIMAC) meeting in the African Union Pre-Summit events in Addis Ababa. As a panelist, she spoke about the African girl child’s challenges, which transcend most African girls, and strongly advocated for re-entry to school of girls who experience teenage pregnancy and/or child marriage.

Married at 16, and mother to one child, the gloom that Tadiwanashe found herself in failed to dim her dreams for a better prospect. Determined to get a good education, she set her mind on going back to school. Tadiwanashe's journey to a second chance to study started 2 years ago when she was referred to Rozaria Memorial Trust (RMT).

Tadiwanashe faced many barriers when she decided to go back to school. She faced pressures at home; was called names; faced discrimination. However, she stood firm and continued with her education as a Form 3 student. She got social support at the rural school she attended. She joined the girls club there and is currently the President of the club, which empowers its members on skills training, as well as understanding the social and economic realities and risks of early marriages and exposure to HIV.

The Southern Africa HIV and AIDS Information Dissemination Service (SAfAIDS) in their 2016 report noted that fewer girls than boys had a clear understanding of HIV in Southern Africa. “The face of HIV/AIDS is young and female. Girls remain vulnerable to new infections translating it into higher rates of infection,” the report stated. The number of women infected with HIV in the 15 to 24 age group is higher when compared to men. The 2016 statistics showed that 4500 girls who sat the Grade 7 examinations (average age 13) ended up pregnant out of total of both girls and boys being 359600.

The Ministry of Health and Child Care’s Director of AIDS and TB unit, Dr Owen Mugurungi, explained why HIV has a woman’s face. “Infected semen remains in the cervix for some time, there is a large surface area in the vagina and cervix exposed to the virus in the vagina is more susceptible to small tears during sex. The bruises and tears make one vulnerable to infection. Young women’s cervixes are even more vulnerable, particularly when they first start having sex. But perhaps the most compelling risk factor is women’s lack of power to ensure they have safe sex,” he said.

Worldwide, a quarter of all new HIV infections are of women aged between 15- 24 years. Sadly the majority of these young women live in sub-Saharan Africa, where 6 out of every 10 people living with HIV are women. Women in Zimbabwe have less say in demanding safe sex.

Last year Tadiwanashe launched the Girls Opportunities Fund, which will collaborate with the Mutale Foundation to reach out to African philanthropy and other resources to hold the hands of these girls, support them in school, and offer them a second chance in life. Today, this survivor of child marriage is a Rozaria Memorial Trust (RMT) young leader. The African Union Justine Mutale Foundation has awarded a university scholarship to her. She is one of the 40 young women and girls supported by RMT and its partners to participate in the African Union (AU) processes.

The AU has marked 2018 as the African anti-corruption year, with the theme of Winning the Fight Against Corruption. Early marriage is mired in corruption. No underage girl can be deemed married- they are raped. Tadiwanashe and the other girls/women of her group, are raising their voices on the effects of corruption and how this is undermining efforts to end children's road to accessing education, health and justice as a whole. They insist that girls who have been forced to drop out of school need to be given a second chance.

Tadiwanashe wants every girl to be in school. “I want the world, I want Africa to give us a second chance to be in school,” said Tadiwanashe to a standing ovation at GIMAC.

Catherine Mwauyakufa, Citizen News Service - CNS
February 6, 2018