IT’S a normal day inside Sable Ranch, a farming community at least 6 kilometers outside Marondera town in Mashonaland East province. Since its tobacco planting season, majority of labourers have been sent on a two-week long leave to give the tobacco plant enough time to grow. Just like their parents, school children at Ranch Farm and other surrounding farming communities are attending school just twice every week to adhere to government set COVID-19 prevention protocols.
By Michael Gwarisa recently in Marondera, Mashonaland East
While the adults have capitalized on the short break to tend to their personal farming projects either at the gardens or small pieces of land that have been allocated to them by the farm owner, young people on the other hand have devised other means of killing time and getting over the idleness and unfortunately, sex is also on the menu. To the bulk of young people at Sable Ranch, it is normal to have unprotected sex even at the age of 10 despite the myriad of risks associated with such acts.
As a result, young girls from the ages 10 to 19 in farming communities such as Sable now make up the bulk of first Antenatal Clinic (ANC) bookings being recorded at Dombotombo and Nyameni clinics in Marondera. According to data obtained by HealthTimes from Dombotombo Clinic, a total 146 first-time ANC bookings by girls aged 10 to 19 were recorded between January and September 2021. In January, a total 14 bookings within this age range were recorded while in February, 11 were also recorded. March saw the bookings doubling to 25 within the 10-19 aged girls, while May recorded 20, June 21, July 10, August 20 and September 25. Majority of these bookings are emanating from farming communities surrounding Marondera.
A tour of the Sable Ranch farm compound is usually greeted by young heavily pregnant girls and unlike in other communities where older men impregnate young girls, at Sable Ranch, it is their adolescent and teenage peers responsible for the pregnancies. As a result, a number of the pregnancies are resulting in teen marriages whereby both the husband and wife in most cases will be below the legal majority age of 18. For most girls at Sable Ranch, completing ‘O’ Level takes a miracle of humongous proportions. They rarely make it past form three. The same predicament befell Rodha Mlaudzi (17) from Sable Ranch, who has since dropped out of school to nurse her seven months old pregnancy as well as become a house wife. Her husband who just turned 20 has since left the farm to work in the big City, Harare as his farm wages which is an equivalent to US$40.00 could no longer sustain him and his newly acquired family.
I was in school doing form 4 when i fell pregnant so i ended up dropping out of school. My husband is now in Harare where he is working menial jobs. It really pains however that I have dropped out school when I was about to finish my ‘O’ levels and seeing some girls my age finishing school makes me feel like I have failed in life yet I was so near. I wish to return to school once I give birth. I want to be a nurse when I finally write my examinations,” said Rodha.
She however believes her current situation was due to the limited and lack of access to pregnancy prevention measures such as condoms, contraceptives and a general lack of Adequate Sexual Reproductive Health (SRH) information as well as the absence of youth friendly health environments.
“We have a farm clinic here but the majority of people who get services are adult farm employees. For a child, you only go there accompanied by your parent when you fall sick. It is difficult for us to go there to ask for services in the absence of parents especially condoms. I have never used a condom in my life during intercourse that is how I fell pregnant. As young girls, access to such products in this farm is a challenge for girls my age. I don’t even know where to find condoms and how I can get them even though we always find used condoms lying around.”
She added that improved access to services could reduce the burden of teen pregnancies and teen marriages rampart at Sable Ranch and other surrounding farming communities.
Some of the teenage girls at sable ranch have already married more than once and the situation has also resulted in a surge in Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and HIV infections in young people especially girls as some end up getting into inter-generational unions with older men.
Grace Mazhambe (19) who recently separated with her husband following a dispute with her mother-in-law also bemoaned the lack of SRHR related information and the continued neglect of farm girls by organizations championing women and girls sexual reproductive health issues.
“We are not getting services related to our reproductive and sexual health here in the farms. At times we have our farm health worker who sits us down telling us to use protection but then the challenge comes in terms of access to the services. It’s different from other places where condoms will be in short supply, here we don’t even get them at all. This is why we end up falling pregnant,” said Grace.
She added that there was need to educate parents on SRHR issues so that they can be comfortable to discuss these issues with their children without passing judgments or being harsh on them.
“My appeal on behalf of farm girls is for government and organizations to help us get condoms and other things we can use to prevent pregnancies and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). We have information gaps; we don’t even know anything about how to manage SRHR issues. If they get time, may they please come and just spend time with girls, teaching them on why it is bad to fall pregnant and on the available methods we can use because as it stands, we are in the dark and what we do, we do out of ignorance.”
Mrs Agness Gondojayi, the Sable Ranch Farm health officer said the issue of teen pregnancies on the farm was due to increased sexual activities between the young boys and girls as they were almost doing it publicly.
“At this farm, young people use abandoned houses to engage in sexual activities especially at night. If you leave your kitchen doors open, they will also use your house to do the deed. At times the abandoned houses are fully occupied by their peers to the extent that they end up doing it behind our bedrooms. At night especially during the full moon period every month, the young people make sure they maximize and indulge.
“Unfortunately, some end up developing STIs and instead of visiting the clinic, they resort to treating themselves with traditional herbs. They only open up to me when the STIs would be advanced and I refer them either to Dobotombo clinic in Marondera for treatment. If you had come during the weekend, you would have seen all the teen pregnancies we have here, it’s like an outbreak,” said Ms Gondojayi.
She however said they do not record incidences of unsafe termination of pregnancies or abortions and it is probably because there is a very small population of old women at the farm who offer such services.
Meanwhile, the Mashonaland East Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC) Provincial Marketing and Communications Officer, Fadzayi Maphosah said they have since devised a plan to get into the farms and engage communities around Family Planning services so as to reduce the high teen pregnancies burden.
“I think farms remain a challenge even to us as the ZNFPC, so for fourth Quarter or starting next week, we should be doing outreaches in commercial farming areas within Mashonaland East, Marondera included. Farming communities have their own unique problems for example if say you want to do outreaches in the commercial farming areas, at times people will be engaged and working in the fields so it’s about striking a balance and ensuring we provide services without interfering with their work.
“Working with someone on the farm will ensure that we get ample time to do our work and provide services. Through our community workers, we have identified potential sites for outreaches where we will do information dissemination around Family Planning, Reproductive Health and then also link to the COVID-19 and what government is doing and the Ministry of Health,” said Maposah.
The planned outreaches will see them providing Family Planning (FP) services such as Oral Contraceptives, the injectable Depo-Provera, and also the Sayana Press, the new injectable that Mashonalad East is also part of the pilot program.
“For long citing reversible contraceptives, the Implanon, Jadelle, the IUCD the Loop, we then refer them to our provincial clinic. We will also take advantage of the forthcoming provincial Agricultural Show to do promotions and offer free vouchers for long acting contraceptives. The ZNFPC has also engaged stakeholders within the Mash East province so to ensure the farming communities get adequate information.”
The Provincial Medical Director (PMD) for Mashonaland East Dr Paul Matsvimbo said Family Health services were greatly affected during the COVID-19 period.
“Family health or maternal health services were being affected and we even saw a decline in terms of our various indicators whether they were Immunizations, Antenatal Care (ANC) and other services, we experienced that decline,” said Dr Matsvimbo.
Zimbabwe has made significant strides in terms of improving access to Sexual Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) for young girls and women. At the 25th International Conference on Population Development (ICPD), Zimbabwe made commitments to curb teenage pregnancies from 21.6% to 12% by 2030; and avail comprehensive short and long term; and permanent Family Planning methods at all Family Planning service provision points by 2030.
NB// Names of the interview subjects were protected throughout the article. Thus, the names of the girls used in this article are pseudo names to protect the identity of the interview subjects.