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Students And Youth Working on reproductive Health Action Team (SAYWHAT) joins the world in commemorating the International Day of the Girl Child. The 10th edition is celebrated under the theme, “Digital generation. Our generation.” This day gives the world and Zimbabwe, in particular, an opportunity to introspect on the measures and policies assigned to protect the rights of the girl child. A girl child is most vulnerable to gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, child labour, child marriage, and other ills when she is not given access to quality education.

Access to education has been challenging, especially with the advent of Covid19. The most affected are rural communities that have no access to the internet. The lack of Internet for accessible communication has created a divide in the education sector and negatively impacted the girl child’s life. The majority of rural schools in Zimbabwe have no access to the internet and children travel long distances to access educational services. As a result, the girl child’s right to education is compromised.  There is a need for government and development partners to put hands on the deck so that the girl child is offered an enabling environment for educational development.

SAYWHAT’s slant towards sexual and reproductive health reaffirms its hunger to safeguard and promote rights of the girl child.  At the heart of SAYWHAT’s advocacy work lies various programming and activities that speak to the protection and development of the girl child. The establishment of the state of the art studio in 2021 at the head office in Harare, with support from the Swedish embassy, has been done with an aim of providing the girl child with a conducive environment to develop herself. The studio is opened to students and young people alike who seek to develop and nature their talents. Alongside the studio, is the 577 toll-free instituted two years ago, to receive and address sexual-related violations cases the girl child encounters. Every month over 500 cases are brought forward and the ogranisation offers counseling services and referrals.

Against this background, SAYWHAT is deeply concerned with the failure of the new marriage bill to sail through Parliament for the third time in three successive parliamentary sessions. The finalisation of the new marriage bill and allowing young people to access sexual and reproductive health services with little or no restrictions will reduce cases of child marriages and teenage pregnancies.  It is a cause for concern that in the first quarter of 2021, the government reported about 5000 teenage pregnancy cases in January and February alone. Out of the recorded 5000 teenage pregnancy cases, 1800 entered into marriage. Both teenage pregnancies and child marriages entrench gender inequality and are a hindrance to the educational development of the girl child. International reports are of the view that if action is not taken today, about 1.2 billion girls will become victims of child marriages by 2050.  SAYWHAT is thus imploring the government and Parliament to appreciate the significance of the new marriage bill in arresting child marriages, and therefore prioritise its finalisation during the fourth parliamentary session of the ninth Parliament.

SAYWHAT recognises and supports the Zimbabwean government’s ambitious overdrive to attain a middle-income economy by 2030 which remains possible with an inclusive shared result-oriented approach that respects the girl child’s rights. This includes but is not limited to the right to education, the right to sexual and reproductive health without restrictions, and the right to food and shelter. Vision 2030 should equally empower the girl child to break traditional boundaries and barriers posed by stereotypes and misogyny.

Towards the 2030 journey, it is also important for the government to institute measures and policies to guard against cyber bullying directed to adolescent girls and women by certain characters. Cyber bullying is a new form of gender based violence whose consequences manifest in some instances as mental health challenges which may eventually graduate into suicide. As this year’s theme explains, a digital generation must engage on digital platforms responsibly.

Sexual and reproductive health discourse at the family level should be promoted to equip the girl child with the information that would help her in decision-making.  Parents and guardians should encourage their children to open up on sexual and reproductive health matters, including their relationships.  Information is power, and if it is given to a girl child at the family unit level, it empowers. Gone are the days where the family treated sexual and reproductive discourse as a taboo.  Parents and guardians should also see that their children attend school, especially at higher learning institutions with decent welfare to protect the girl child from abuse. 

As we commemorate this day, religious groups should equally desist from using God’s name to pounce on young women and girls. There are many instances where media reports have exposed the girl child’s sexual and reproductive health rights violation at religious sites including rape. Some religious persons lure desperate young women under the pretext that they want to offer them spiritual healing or cleansing and end up violating their sexual rights. Traditionally, victims of rights violations would find solace in the church before some men of the cloth turned tables upside down. Sadly, we continue to read stories of child marriages, including the painful incident involving Anna Machaya (14) who passed while giving birth at a church site in Marange. SAYWHAT takes this opportunity to urge some restrictive religious sects to allow young girls to access sexual and reproductive health services.    

It is everyone’s duty to protect the rights of the girl child.