Religious Beliefs And culture, Barriers To Accessing SHRH

PUBLIC hearings are announced, people do not attend. The communities show no interest in the formation of policies only to complain later…”

By Catherine Murombedzi

Health Correspondent

Conforming to societal expectations has been a drawback to acceptance that culture is dynamic. The need to adapt and adopt to the ever changing requirements in life are required to keep pace with the changes. Some cultural and religious norms have limited or even hindered acceptance to changes in the global village.

In Zimbabwe, we have societal pressure as a barrier in most people. “If I do this, what will society say?” This becomes a hindrance resulting in people conforming to what they do not believe in, but what society expects. One has to have a free mind, be independent to take decisions depending on locality, needs and what is best for one.

View of SRHR:

Sadly, it does not usually follow, society and cultural beliefs can be a hindrance to development and acceptance of sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR). It is with this in mind that a narrowed view to sexual needs has been adopted by some people. The results have always been unpalatable when trying to address the symptoms not the root cause.

The saying; “religion is the opium of the people,” rings true in religious spaces. The affected do not see it as such. A religiously brainwashed mind is hard to learn and accept norms not taught in the religious doctrine, so is a culturally staunch blinkered perception. Followers are inclined to follow hook, line and sinker that doctrine without questioning the dogma that led to that belief.

The indigenous people of Zimbabwe, believed in Mwari as the supreme being before the arrival of missionaries. They believed in the ancestral spirits leading to the supreme being.

Today, most indigenous churches no longer connect through the ancestral medium, with the leaders now claiming to speak and get visions from the creator. The leaders of such sects can just wake up propagating a doctrine that does not allow followers to seek health assistance.

The doctrine followers are referred to the shrine where ‘medical experts’ heal through prayer, holy oil, water and nhombo (blessed charms in stones, grass or wooden crosses).

Abuse of minor girls

The sect elders keep ‘receiving’ visions and annually pick a virgin to join the ever growing homestead (nzanga). The leaders secretively seek medical assistance, yet deny their followers. All the leaders say is ‘gospel truth’.

The young girls given away in marriage, even as ten-year-olds, have no say in denying the suitor. Women and children in the African society are to be seen and not heard and it is the same in religious circles.

Minors are raped in the name of marriage. It’s not underage marriage, why sanitize it? It’s purely rape.

Cycle of poverty

The adolescent girls in some of the religious sects are thrust into motherhood and stop attending school the moment their hand is given away to be raped. Contraception is also denied, as a woman’s duty is to breed.

Speaking to Elizabeth, who asks that her surname remains anonymous, shows a cycle of poverty now in the third generation. Her paternal grandfather is a founder of the sect in Chiweshe, Mashonaland Central Province where she hails.

At 19, a mother of four minor children, Elizabeth reveals the depth of the challenges in the sect.

“I was born in the sect, (muchibarirwo) and my mother was the first wife in a big family with my father married to six other women. All the girls in my family attend school up to Grade 5 and stop to be trained in wife and motherhood duties. The boys go up to Grade 7 and too, end there to learn a trade, metal work, mostly dish and trough making (mabasa emaoko). Girls do not fall in love with boys of their heart suitors are chosen for us, or an old man claims a vision which gave you away to be his wife. We are betrothed. I was lucky to be given away to a youthful man in our church. I became the second wife to a man aged 20 at the age of 13. I had a difficult pregnancy, I fell ill from three months of gestation. I was taken to masowe (shrine) where holy midwives handle all expectant mothers. I bled a lot and for days after giving birth could not sit up alone. I had a clay pot (mbiya) of lemon, honey and holy oil every day until I recovered after six weeks. I was released to go home and sadly fell pregnant before my baby could even crawl. I was a mother again before turning 15. Devastated, I sought help from my mother. She could not help me, her hands were tied, she told me to be grateful, my husband was young and had not got a third wife, so I was supposed to give him as many children as I could to deter him from casting his roving eyes on the many beautiful younger girls in the church. On several occassions, I sneaked to the local clinic intending to seek contraception. We do not go to the clinic, so each time I got to the clinic, I met people I knew so I evaded them. I ended up unable to get help. So this is my story, I am 19 and a mother of four. Giving birth to three male children has not stopped my husband from fishing again. Mainini is expecting, sadly she is my half -sister, my father nodded to the proposal and he got a tonne of maize in return. There has been drought and this token of appreciation is what every father in the sect wishes to have in a son-in-law. My sister nearly died giving birth at the shrine last week, she survived death by a whisker when police raided the shrine after learning that the sect defied lockdown measures to have 50 or less people converging. That is how she ended up in hospital where she finally gave birth after four days of stressful labour at the masowe,” narrated Elizabeth who can pass for a 50-year-old mother. What will become of Elizabeth’s children if they are not ‘rescued?’

Health seeking behaviour

Some sects of the apostolic order have negative health seeking behaviour as noted in the case of the two teenagers above. Forced early sexual debut, unprotected sex, giving birth at a tender age when physically the body is not ready has resulted in complications during delivery. Fistula obstruction, rupturing of the cervix is common and many women who have given birth at home make the numbers.

“An obstetric fistula occurs when a mother has a prolonged, obstructed labour, but doesn’t have access to emergency medical care, such as a C-section. She often labours in excruciating pain for days. Tragically, her baby usually dies,” reports the Fistula Obstruction Foundation.

Correction of the complications requires surgery which is beyond the reach of many. Many young girls have died even under expert medical care because the birth passage is not yet ready.

The figure could be high with a myriad of challenges bedevilling the health sector now. Nurses and doctors are on strike, medication is not readily available, with public hospitals giving out prescriptions for patients to purchase from private pharmacies. The private pharmacies are charging an arm and limb in US$ way, way unaffordable for the generality of the citizenry.

The Zimbabwe Demographic Health Survey of 2015 reported that one in six teenagers has given birth in their teens.

Religion as a barrier

Religion as a barrier to health seeking manners is shrouded in beliefs.

Religion first brain washes the follower, blinkers view, ending up with the doctrinal view.

Wikipedia defines religion as a system of belief… in and worship of a supernatural power or god…with pious or devout conscientious following.

The Zimbabwe, the Constitution stipulates Freedom of Religion, hence anyone can wake up with a belief and attract followers.

Educative information has to reach religious sects. A civil society organisation called SAT is working in Manicaland, Marange area. It has managed to have church elders and youths to be part of the initiative. The trained cadres become peer counsellors. Results can not be achieved overnight, but such initiatives bear fruit in the long run. Education for living is not an event, it is a process and requires continuation.

Stereotyping religious sects without engagement will not help issues negatively impacting that sector.

“We are making headway in Marange where we work with religious elders and youths to impart sexual education to the sector. These champions are making steady progress,” said a SAT representative recently.

Society turns a blind eye

Society has turned a blind eye to the shortcomings of the apostolic sect.

“Ndozvavanoita mapositori,” is a statement which shows society accepting the wrongs in that community with out having engaged them to know why and educate the people involved.

A tip of the iceberg on issues going unreported in religious sects took place recently in Musana, Mashonaland Central where a 17-year-old girl died from pregnancy complications at a shrine.

Inspector Milton Mundembe, the spokesperson for the province, in a local vernacular newspaper, Kwayedza, last week noted a case of Elsie Mapfumo, from the Johanne Marange Apostolic Sect who died from pregnancy related complications.

“…Elsie Mapfumo, aged 17 died on June 21, 2020 at “chitsidzo” masowe Johanne Marange in Musana area. The girl had been taken there by her aunt since she was not feeling well. On 10 June the aunt phoned the husband informing him that Elsie could no longer eat nor talk. On 21 June Elsie died. Since she was pregnant, they opened her up and removed the featus from the womb. The two were buried at the shrine. The aunt phoned the husband and informed him of the incident. The husband demanded his wife’s body for burial. We are investigating the case,” said Inspector Mundembe.

Death at a shrine

Mapfumo’s death mirrors hundred more deaths going unreported in religious circles kumasowe and homes. The deaths are not reported. Some religious sectors can end up functioning on cult lines.

Is arresting the culprits enough in the case of Mapfumo?

In my view not enough deterrent. The religious and cultural beliefs require engagement, education and teaching to get the leaders on the same chapter with the dangers and how this can be avoided. Religion as a barrier to health seeking manners is shrouded in beliefs.

Religion first brain washes the follower, blinkers view, ending up with the doctrinal view. In Zimbabwe, the Constitution stipulates Freedom of religion, hence anyone can wake up with a belief and attract followers.

Advocacy for change

In 2019, seven civil society organisations came together to form an alliance called Advocacy Core Team (ACT). The coalition is pushing for the reviewing of the age of access to reproductive health services for adolescents under the age of 16.

ACT came up with a position paper highlighting the protection, promotion and fulfilment of the health of the child calling on the involvement of everyone to improve the welfare of minors. It is never too late to act.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines maternal death as: “death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days after giving birth…death as a result related to the pregnancy…not from unnatural causes nor an accident.”

The Fragile States Index of 2017 notes the gap between the rich and poor and the difficulty in accessing quality health care as a factor to maternal death. South Sudan ranks high with 1150 deaths per 100 000 live deaths.

With Zimbabwe listed among the 15 fragile states with high maternal mortality, (436 per 100 000) cultural and religious beliefs require engagement to address the cons. South Sudan ranks high with 1150 deaths per 100 000 live births.

As a country, we can do better, one avoidable death is one too many.

The downward review of the age (16) of access to SRHR is currently under discussion with the parliament. Like any law reviews, the issue will come under public debate.

Lack of interest

Sadly, social accountable responsibility is an issue unknown to most people. Public hearings are announced, communities do not attend. The communities show no interest in the formation of policies only to complain later.

An outcry is the result yet when public hearings are called, majority ignores. The end results, voice of tbose who attended is captured and sees light at the end of the day.

It is everyone’s duty to have a say in national issues.

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