As teenage pregnancies skyrocket, new law promises to keep girls in school

As teenage pregnancies skyrocket, new law promises to keep girls in school

Cassey Simbanai was set to take her final year examinations this month. The 17-year-old Zimbabwean girl was one of the more promising students in her class. She still has dreams of becoming a science teacher.

But on a recent November day, Simbanai wasn’t in her classroom, or playing her beloved rugby after school. Instead, she prepared lunch for her in-laws in their kitchen in Hauna Growth Point, a small village in the mountains of eastern Zimbabwe near the border with Mozambique. Simbanai spends most of her time doing chores for her new family while waiting to give birth to her child, who is due in January.

Within weeks of Zimbabwe imposing a strict national lockdown to slow the spread of Covid-19, in April, Simbanai became pregnant.

“We didn’t have much time together as I was always in school,” she says, referring to her now husband and partner of three years, a 24-year-old employee of a tobacco processing factory. “But when we went into the lockdown… we had plenty of time and it just happened. We had unprotected sex.”

Zimbabwe’s shops were shut during part of the lockdown, severely limiting access to contraceptives for rural residents like Simbanai and her husband.

“He asked to marry me after discovering that I was pregnant,” she says, kneeling on a straw mat in her in-laws’ home. Even though child marriage is illegal, the pair eloped.

Before the pandemic, pregnant girls in Zimbabwe were not allowed to stay in school. But the country’s nationwide lockdown kept children out of school for six months, resulting in skyrocketing rates of teen pregnancy and child marriage, and leading the government to reverse its earlier ban.

The move, which has rippled across the African continent, was heralded by child education advocates as significant for the lives of Zimbabwean girls and women who now find it easier to pursue education and economic advancement.

“The lockdown resulted in unintended consequences, among them child marriage. Admittedly, we have to agree that schools play an important role in being a safe haven for our children,” said Taungana Ndoro, a director of communications and advocacy at the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education.

In August, President Emmerson Mnangagwa amended the country’s Education Act when he signed a law making it illegal to expel pregnant girls from school. Sierra Leone overturned a similar ban in March. After receiving a World Bank loan, Tanzania pledged to improve access to education for pregnant girls, but stopped short of readmitting them nationwide. In July, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered that schoolgirls who became pregnant during lockdown are “unconditionally” readmitted to school, and given access to free ante-natal care.

This story was published by the The Fuller Project, a global nonprofit newsroom reporting on issues that affect women