Economic Induced Absenteeism Weighs Heavily On the Mental Health of Rural Manicaland School Children

For Alice Nyatsanga (16), school days are not something to cherish as they usually involve cat and mouse games with school authorities due to non-payment of school fees. To raise money for tuition, stationery and food, Alice is forced to join her grandmother in doing casual work in people’s fields as well as sell firewood by the road side along the busy Mutare/Masvingo Highway.

By Michael Gwarisa in  Manicaland Province

“At times, when we open schools, it does not matter lessons would have started, I have to abandon school for two to three days to help my grandmother raise money for school fees, extra lessons and to buy food for the house,” said Alice.

Her economic situation back home, coupled with her the of basic supplies such stationery, school uniform, school shoes among other things, has taken a toll on her mental health as she at times feels like an outsider in school.

 At times I think of quitting school. Seeing my grandmother struggle with me really eats me up.  I usually return to school after working in people’s fields for days and I am always lagging behind my peers. For me, the situation is made worse by the fact that I also do not have text books to read, school shoes and uniform and other things that are needed. I always ask myself why my situation is like that. This distracts me a lot and has been affecting me as I just feel like I don’t belong.”

Alice is a double orphan from Tsikirire Village, Ward 33 in Vumba, Mutare District. She is doing Form two at Zimunya High school and stays with her grandmother, a widow, in their small and humble homestead. Her grandmother also takes care of six other children including her own daughter who is writing her Ordinary levels in November this year.

Alice and her Grandmother

Just like Alice, Tawanda Manono (19) from Muturikwa Village in Chipinge is also facing the same predicament as Alice. However, Tawanda’s story is bit different as he lost his father to the Cyclone Idai in March 2019. Tawanda is struggling to juggle between school and the heavy responsibilities at home where he is now expected to fill in his father’s shoes and provide for his mother and three sisters.

“My father was the bread winner. He was a teacher, my mother does not work. My father’s death has left a huge void in our family and this has affected me academically. I now have to step up and provide for this family. At times, i work in the Macadamia and Tea plantations during school days and the money is not much. I don’t have an option,” said Tawanda.

Even though the Higherlife Foundation has taken up the payment of school fees for Tawanda and his siblings, the poverty at home has had a toll on his mental health and that of his siblings. Even his mother, Sinikiwe Ingana confirmed that the situation has taken a toll on her children’s mental and performance in school.

Tawanda’s mother, Mrs Sinikwe Ingana (standing) and the Community Child-care Worker (CCW) Mrs Rice

“The death of their father has affected them heavily especially in school and also I am struggling to provide for them. I usually take casual jobs in people’s fields. My son used to be brilliant in school but last term, he did not pass a single subject. I am so worried as mother right now because I know they have gone through a lot over the years,” said Mrs Ingana.

She added that the demand for extra lessons money has also had an impact on her children. The teachers ask for US$20 per subject during extra lessons and its either you pay or child lags behind for good. Her son Tawanda is writing seven subjects this November. This would mean they need $140 for extra lessons, an amount very difficult to raise given their circumstances.

Alice and Tawanda represent a sizable number of children living in poverty in Manicaland province and according to studies, students in poverty do not have access to the same support systems of their higher-income peers and this makes it difficult for them to get proper medical care to mitigate long-term effects of their mental health struggles. For children who live in poverty, the every-day burdens of their difficult circumstances can be detrimental to their mental health, which can jeopardize their success in school and their chances of escaping poverty in adulthood.

The Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare’s Department of Social Development (DSD) is working in collaboration with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Farm Orphans Support Trust (FOST) to identify cases of children and adolescents at greater risk of mental health in Manicaland province.

Ministry of Public Service, Labour and Social Welfare DSD Provincial Social Development Officer for Manicaland, Mr Antony Marongwe confirmed that the province has been recording an increase in mental health related issues and the Cyclone Idai had left long term mental health challenges in children and adolescents in Manicaland province.

“Issues of mental health are prevalent in our province especially from the effects of the Cyclone Idai. Both children and adults were affected. You know how it feels when parents die. Children face a myriad of challenges which they can’t handle at such a tender age. At the end of the day, they end up battling mental health challenges and they can’t function properly,” said Mr Marongwe.

He added that most children and adults who were affected by the Cyclone have resorted to negative coping mechanisms such as drugs and substance abuse to numb themselves from the pain and memories of the Cyclone Idai. He also said the DSD has developed a department that deals with drugs and alcohols abuse and they launched the programme recently.

Meanwhile, UNICEF has recognized the effects of mental health on children and adolescents and is developing a new module on mental health in children and adolescents which was pilot tested in Mutare Zimbabwe in July 2022. Currently no standard data collection tools on mental health exists despite growing literature on its effect on children and adolescents. This module will be part of the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey which is scheduled for 2024. This survey generates data on key indicators on the well-being of children, adolescents and women and helping shape policies for the improvement of their lives.

UNICEF Zimbabwe Child Protection Officer, Lloyd Muchemwa said, “UNICEF sees mental health on a continuum of care, addressing the broad spectrum of mental health issues that affect everyone, from specific mental health conditions to the overall mental well-being that every child deserves. UNICEF supports mental health as a holistic, life course issue relevant to every sector of development and views all Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as determinants of mental health and psychosocial well-being, underpinning the prevention, promotion, and treatment continuum of mental ill health.”

He added that support groups should be gender responsive, providing spaces for both girls and boys to receive and provide support to their peers. He also said loving families provide a foundation for children’s mental wellbeing through development of self-esteem, skills for navigating life challenges, gender-equal values and a sense of structure, stability and predictability in their lives.

FOST through support from UNICEF and DSD have since set up community structures such as Kids Clubs in the rural settings whereby children meet, interact and share ideas among other issues affecting them.

Atipaishe Mamhute, a Social Worker with FOST says “We have also developed some safe groups of young mothers between the ages 21 and below where they meet and interact. In these groups this is where some issues emanate and solutions found. We are also working with the DSD in terms of identifying cases and making referrals that will feed into the national case management system.”


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