“If ever I’m spotted walking into a beer hall to buy a pack of Durex condoms, my father will beat me with a rubber whip; my teachers would banish me from the classroom, our church pastor will expel me from the Sunday choir band.”
Nancy* is a 17-year-old biology student at a school run by remnants of the American Baptists in Chimanimani, a mostly rural district of east Zimbabwe.
“Chats about condoms are a banned in our church youth seminars,” she says. “On occasions our church pastor speaks, he shouts, ‘condoms are full of holes, beware! Abortion is Satan’s invention!”
Between February and September 2016, Nancy says ten of her classmates became pregnant and were kicked out of school despite directives from the Zimbabwe education ministry and the country´s constitutional court mandating that pregnant girls must not be excluded from finishing high school.
“I feel faith, stigma towards condoms put girls in harm here,” Nancy said of her classmates.
Africa´s highest teenage fertility rate,
Rural eastern Zimbabwe, a bastion of church authority, is witnessing some of the country’s fastest growing rate of teenage pregnancies.
According to the Zimbabwe’s Demographic Health Survey, the fertility rate among regional teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 increased from 99 per 1,000 to 115 per 1,000 between 2005 and 2015.
“Fertility is twice likely to be high among teenagers in rural Zimbabwe than the country´s urban settlements,” reveals Cheikh Tidiane Cisse, Zimbabwe country representative for the United Nations Family and Population Agency (UNFPA).
Observers attribute the rate partly to church restrictions and stigma around condoms and other forms of contraception.
Zimbabwe’s government is mired deep in debt, so churches play a critical role in providing free or subsidized sexual health clinics, maternity homes, surgeries and schools in rural expanses of the country.
But, “Many churches actively discourage the debate on condoms within their assemblies,” says Bishop Fani Moyo, a prominent cleric, a sociologist and founder of The Progressive Churches Sexual Health Forum of Zimbabwe, a non-profit agency.
“It is seen as a profanity for Sunday school girls to introduce a sermon on condoms publicly.”
Zimbabwe´s state ministers take a more relaxed view though. “Parents are free to drop in condoms when they pack food and books in their children’s schoolbags,” says Zimbabwe’s education minister, Mr. Lazarus Dokora.
At nearby Rusitu Hospital, a large institution run by the United Baptist Church in Zimbabwe nurses order patients to participate in morning prayer sessions before giving out medicines.
“If you are teenage student and you ask for condoms when you get into a relationship, church nurses will report you to the church school principal. A beating follows. We girls endure sex without protection,” Nancy says.
The church vice president, Mr. I. Moyo, defends their stance fiercely. “We are conservative church. We uphold our traditions like abstinence before sex. We won’t alter our values.”
condoms sales frowned upon,
Many businesses and tribal courts in rural Zimbabwe also restrict the distribution of condoms to teenage girls.
“It is an offense punishable by a fine of a goats if a schoolgirl is seen buying condoms in a beer tavern in my village,” says Sam Chirandu, a tribal village head in east Zimbabwe.
“School girls mustn’t do sex before marriage. It is against our social customs,” he adds.
Unlike in neighboring country of South Africa where condoms are widely available, often for free, in rural Zimbabwe they can be hidden. Where they are sold, in street stalls, traders demand $US1 for a packet containing six lubricated condoms which are marked “not for sale.”
“For fear of stigma and beating, I have to cleverly send my 18-year-old boyfriend to buy us condoms from supermarkets, and hope the pastor or his parents don’t see him as well. Each pack costs $US1. The price is too much for teenage girls,” Nancy says.
Crucially, rural east Zimbabwe is home to the Johane Masowe Apostolic Church denomination, a strictly Africanist church sect that draws tens of thousands of followers and is wildly popular among Zimbabwe’s influential government ministers, security chiefs and diplomats.
The denomination is famous for its explicit promotion of polygamy, child marriage and for its fiery dislike of condoms and other forms of contraception.
In the district where this church thrives, the majority of school girls, some as young as 10, have been married to older men from their church.
“Most marriages are arranged between adult church men and underage girls. Request for condoms can result in a teenage bride being divorced harshly,” said Edson Tsvakai, a community health project coordinator at The Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe-Africa.
Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Education and Culture says only one-third of the 10,000 local girls who enroll in high school graduate after four years.
Tsvakai pins the high dropout rate on “runaway teenage pregnancies.”
“The police are the biggest let down in early forced child marriages and pregnancies, as they have continued to turn a blind eye to these religious offences,” he says. “Prosecutions die down quickly. Church cult leaders are secretive, and curry high favor with political elites.”
The country’s Domestic Violence Act prohibits marriage under the age of 16 for both girls and boys, but enforcement is weak in rural districts where poverty and fear incentivizes underreporting.
Noah Pashapa, a bishop of the Pentecostals Liberty Churches International in Harare and one of Zimbabwe’s most famous preachers, holds a pragmatic view on contraception.
“Condoms are a necessary evil. They save lives and marriages,” he says.
Pashapa keeps condoms in his office for needy couples and sexually active youth. He says Zimbabwe’s HIV/AIDS crisis, which contributed to 29,000 deaths in 2015 according to UNAIDS, is slowly breaking down the Church’s high moral ground on sexual abstinence among youths.
He says, “We want to see a future in which condoms should be distributed in churches – accompanied by information that promotes abstinence and informed choices among the youth.”
Editor note: the name marked with asterisk * is a means to protect the interview person’s identity.
(Picture credit: Women Taboos Radio editors)
(Picture caption: Zimbabwe women dance in Harare demanding free contraceptives in 2016)
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Hmmm. Interesting read. Am following. Great work