A Thigh For For A Bucket: Sexual Abuse Reigns Supreme At Boreholes and Waterpoints In Zimbabwe

THE absence of adequate water and sanitation facilities provides a fertile breeding ground for Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). In both rural and urban settings in Zimbabwe, girls and women travel long distances to fetch water and, in some instances where ablution facilities are not available, they relieve themselves in the bush, further making girls and young women targets of abuse.

By Michael Gwarisa

According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey of 2019, a sizable number of households in Zimbabwe still lack sufficient Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) facilities and as a result, households without water on premises, 87% in urban areas on average spend up to 30 minutes fetching water per day while in rural areas, 54% spent between 31 minutes to three hours.

However, the situation in peri-urban and illegal urban settlements is deplorable as girls and young women can spend hours in the scorching sun and at times in the rain, queuing for water. In Hopely, a peri-urban settlement located South West of Harare which emerged after the Operation Murambatsvina which displaced millions from their houses and properties in 2005, majority of households rely on shallow wells and borehole water for daily use. Due to the escalating water crises in Hopley, some residents were recently reported to had resorted to fetching water at the nearby Granville Cemetery (Mbudzi.

Even though donor partners have installed boreholes in the area, it seems they are struggling to sustain the community’s population of approximately 200 000 people, with about 65 000 being aged between a10-24years according to the United National Population Fund (UNFPA). Due to the lack of proper water and sanitation, most young girls in the area have either been sexually abused or harassed in their quest to get water at water points and boreholes. Borehole Marshals or Mahwindi as they are known run almost all known water points in Hopely and they make people pay in cash or in kind to get water.

For Melisa (24) (name protected) from Hopley who recently graduated from University, her encounter shook her. She said she remembers vividly how one Borehole Marshal asked for sexual favors from her so that she could be moved to the front of the water queue.

The distance i walk to the borehole is long from where I stay. On our way to fetch water, there are guys we meet on the road who pass some sexually suggestive comments, some of the comments are so offending. When you get to the water point, the queues are super long. For you to fetch water enough to do household chores and to bath and leave for school under such circumstances will be very difficult.

“That is why most girls end up giving in to the demands of water and borehole marshals who ask for sexual favors from girls and young women in exchange for water. Once you allow these guys to fetch water for you, to them it’s a passport to touch you inappropriately or have sexual intercourse with you. I remember one day, this guy came to me and asked me if he could grab my buttocks in exchange for water but I refused,” said Melisa.

She added that once a girl refuses, the water Marshals will make it difficult for her to fetch water. She said the Hopely community has normalized this behavior and it has become a norm that girls are asked for sexual favors in broad daylight in the queues and the elders cannot do anything about it.

“We get these requests on a daily basis, it has become a norm that you are asked for sex as long as you go to fetch water, you are guaranteed of these suggestions. You just have to be strong enough and ignore them. If you report such cases in my community you are viewed as an attention seeker. I remember my friend telling me that that she had been abused but she did not want to share the details and she did not even report the abuse to the police”

Majority of girls and young women in Hopley have encountered sexual harassment and abuse at water points and the major drivers behind the growing abuse at the water points is the absence of adequate water and sanitation infrastructure, according to a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called the HOPE for Adolescents and Youth which is conducting activities in the area.

In an interview with HealthTimes, Hope for Adolescents and Youth Managing Director, Mitchell Ndlovu said the issue of water and sanitation in Hopely was not only exposing girls and young women to abuse but was also subjecting them to menstrual health management conditions.

“As Hope for Adolescents and Youths, we are implementing a project titled Girls Lead, which is meant to improve young adolescents and girls and young women’s engagement in development processes and health processes. Under the Girls Lead, we managed to identify five adolescent girls and young women from Hopley who conducted a research and it was a girls led research to understand the needs, priorities and participation trends of adolescents girls and young women from Hopley.

“We discovered that participation of most girls in development programs is being hindered by their marital status because they are married even though they are young and their husbands are not allowing them to participate in such programs. We also realized that participation is being hindered by the lack of access to water and sanitation. Hopely is an informal area whereby the infrastructure is poor and there is also no access to water, what there is are different water points that have been sunk within the community and these are few to service a big population and community such as Hopley,” said Ndlovu.

She added that the absence of adequate water sources has resulted in long queues and this has been a problem for adolescent girls and young women as they have to travel long distances to get to the water points.

“When the girls get here and because there are long queues, the girls basically have to spend the whole day in the queue trying to access water and after standing in the queues in the sun or in the rain, they get two buckets each and have to go back home. On their way home or at water points, they get exposed to different forms of violence be it physical or sexual.

“They are also even robbed along the way; in the end we are having a situation where our girls and young women are put at risk because there is no access to water of which this is something that the government and council need to address because it is a community with people. This water situation also affecting the menstrual health management of girls and young women in Hopely. Because of lack of access to water they cannot clean themselves, they cannot after clean themselves after messing up when they are on their menstrual periods because they only have access to two buckets of water.”

Hopley community has a high prevalence of HIV and AIDS and access to Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) services is poor. However, the UNFPA and the City of Harare recently established a Clinic and Youth Centre in the area to cater for the young population and other health needs of the Hopley community. Child marriages and teenage pregnancies are common in the area currently standing at 18% and 21% respectively. At least 70% of girls in Hopely are mothers by age 24 years.

Various cases of abuse at water points have also been reported countrywide especially in developing urban settings where there is no proper water and sanitation infrastructure and areas where artisinal gold mining is happening. In Chinhoyi where illegal gold mining is rampart, sexual abuse at water points has also become a norm. According to an organization called the Regional Network of Children and Young People Trust (RNCYPT)  operating in Chinhoyi, they have received numerous reports from girls who have been sexually and physically abused at water points or coming from fetching water.

Dean Chiparaushe the SRHR Program Officer for RNCYPT said artisanal miners in Alaska and Chikonohono have wrecked havoc in the area as they are constantly pestering girls and young women for sex whenever they visit water points.

“The girls we have interacted with have highlighted that in Chinhoyi, there are water challenges and there are certain areas that have gone for years without tap water. There are very few water points far  away and they have to walk long distances to fetch water. However, the girls have told us that they been abused on the way.

“As you know, Chinhoyi has a lot of illegal and artisanal mining activities. The roads the girls use at times passes through where the gold panners will be mining and the miners now know the time when the girls come to fetch water. If they propose love to them and in the event that the girls refuse, they are either beaten or raped in the process,” said Chiparaushe.

Meanwhile, speaking to this publication, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Zimbabwe Chief of Communication, James Maiden said women and girls are disproportionately burdened with the responsibility of fetching water and this in the process exposes them to the risks of sexual and gender-based violence.

“The farther away from home a water source or place for defecation is, the higher the risks of sexual and gender-based violence that women and girls are exposed to. Effective gender-responsive programming can contribute to progressing gender equality and achieve sustained improvements in WASH access for women and girls. For instance, safe access to water collection points and toilets closer to homes or with adequate lighting, can significantly contribute to the prevention of GBV.

“Ensuring that women and girls have an equal role in the design, management and monitoring of water and sanitation services combined with their meaningful participation in decision-making through water point committees, not only enhances the sustainability of water and sanitation infrastructure but also enhances attention to risks faced by women and girls whilst reducing the burden of water collection and providing options for dignified management of menstrual hygiene for girls and women,” said Maiden.

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