Sexual abuse a silent threat to MDGs

woman_and_girl_childHARARE Esther Masvikeni (not her real name) is 17 years old but looks twice her age and has just found out that she is HIV-positive. She was raped in April by her former boyfriend who was her sisters neighbour at the time. (Pictured: A mother and her young daughter Rese

The much older boyfriend has since disappeared and is believed to have joined the never-ending trek to South Africa in search of employment and to run away from his troubles back home.

Besides carrying the virus that causes AIDS, Masvikeni also has to contend with hazy future for herself and her unborn baby.

And being an orphan has not helped matters too for the young expecting mother. Her sisters husband, with whom she has been staying since her parents died four years ago, will not accept the additional responsibility of looking after another mans child and has ordered her to leave home.

I dont know who to turn to because my boyfriends relatives dont want to accept me while my sister wants me out in order to save her own marriage, Masvikeni said.

She has dropped out of school and is presently staying with a Harare family that was touched by her plight.

Masvikeni’s case is not unique amid worrying statistics around sexual abuse of young girls and high female drop-out rates.

Girls at risk

According to a report published by the United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) last week to coincide with the hosting of the UN summit to review progress towards implementation of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), Zimbabwean girls aged 15-24 face a higher risk of contracting HIV compared to boys in the same age-group.

HIV prevalence among Zimbabwean girls stood at 7.7 percent in 2007 compared to 2.9 percent for boys, according to the report titled Progress for Children.

UNICEF blamed the higher prevalence rate among girls to failure to use preventive methods, saying only 42 percent of young Zimbabwean women reported using condoms during sex compared to 68 percent for men of the same age.

The UNICEF report also revealed that Zimbabwean girls have a higher risk of entering into forced marriages compared to their counterparts in nine other Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states.

At least 34 percent of Zimbabwean girls are at risk of marrying before they turn 18 years against only two percent of boys.

The only fellow SADC countries with worse records on early marriages are Zambia, Tanzania, Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar, according to UNICEF.

The report showed a massive geographical and status disparity in incidences of child marriages, with 44 percent of rural schoolgirls more likely to marry at an early age compared to just 20 percent of urban girls.

It also revealed that 57 percent of the poorest 20 percent of Zimbabwean girls have a higher likelihood of marrying before turning 18 against 15 percent of those from rich families.

A 2009 study by the Family Support Trust, a non-governmental organisation operating clinics for survivors of sexual abuse, revealed that orphaned girls are twice as likely to experience abuse as those with both or one parent.

According to FST director Eunice Lyn Garura, 30 percent of the predominantly female clients who visited the organisations clinics had lost both parents.

The trust runs four clinics, including one in Harare Central Hospital, which caters to some of the city’s high-density areas.

MGD targets

Research has also shown that vulnerability of young girls had been exacerbated by the governments 2005 urban “clean-up” programme, codenamed Operation Murambatsvina, which forcibly removed many orphaned and vulnerable children and their families from their homes and left them living on the street.

A report published by Zimbabwe’s National AIDS Council (NAC) in April showed a dramatic rise in sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among people aged 15 to 24 in Harare.

STIs heighten vulnerability to HIV infection, and this age group is one of the hardest hit.

According to the NAC report, more than 24 000 people were treated for STIs in 2009 compared to 8 500 cases recorded in 2008. Over 60 percent of the cases were women.

The Community Working Group on Health (CWGH), a network of civic groups that promote health awareness, blamed the rise in STIs to a too narrow focus on HIV/AIDS treatment.

It said the government had during the past few years concentrated on access to treatment such as antiretrovirals (ARVs) at the expense of preventive services.

The bulk of the money collected from the AIDS levy currently goes towards procurement of ARVs while very little is allocated to health education awareness campaigns for young people.

AIDS activists also attribute the STI increase to the violence that occurred in the aftermath of the March 2008 election.

Many organisations, especially those working with young people, are still struggling to get on their feet after the economic and political disruptions of 2008.

A 2009 assessment by the CWGH of young people’s needs for sexual reproductive health and HIV/AIDS interventions showed that sex work, intergenerational relationships, early marriage, early sexual debut and unplanned pregnancy were among the challenges they faced.

The CWGH noted that young people had limited access to reproductive health information and services.

The challenges threaten to erode the gains so far scored by Zimbabwe in reducing the HIV prevalence rate and further slow down the countrys already slow progress towards meeting MDGs targets on improving health .

Zimbabwe’s adult HIV prevalence has been on a downward trend, dropping from 14.1 percent in 2008 to 13.7 percent in 2009.

Post published in: Politics

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