‘Zim has made significant strides’

Roselyne Sachiti Interview
Twenty-five years later Zimbabwe lived to its commitment. I remember after the first 10 years of review, take for example on family planning — which is really access to informed choices on when to have a baby and how to space out your babies — only 42 percent of women in Zimbabwe aged 15 and 49 were using any form of contraceptive method.

Their contraceptive prevalence rate was 42 percent. This is for women 15 to 49, who were married. However, 25 years down the line Zimbabwe today has a contraceptive prevalence rate of 67 percent, an increase of 25 percent over 25 years. That’s really commendable because it is actually the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

We really have to make sure we support Government to continue on the right path with it.

What Zimbabwe did right was one, there was information out there, people were informed. The Zimbabwe Government also put favourable policies in place. These ensured choice and freedom of choice and expanded contraceptive choice.

These enabled women to choose from natural to the modern methods of contraception, short acting and long acting. Second, they had strong partnerships. It is during that period that the Zimbabwe National Family Planning Council (ZNFPC) was formed and they carried the banner on family planning forward to ensure access for all.

They went to all the corners of Zimbabwe. Unlike in other countries where you find the urban uptake was really high and rural very low, in Zimbabwe it was very high of course in urban centres, but it was also relatively high in rural areas. There were strong partnerships and a very strong health system because contraception was available at all levels of service provision. There was investment by Government into commodities and supplies for family planning.

However, the other element that was critical in population and development was to ensure that people are educated, education and literacy was key. Zimbabwe today has a literacy rate of 91 percent, meaning at least 91 percent of the population can read and write, which is extremely high and is the highest on the continent. Why? Because also the Zimbabwe Government made investments in the social sectors — in education, health, water and all the things that facilitate and enabled learners to perform well. Then, the education sector had continuation because of facilities in place.

These facilities were well equipped and there was institutional preparedness. They had human resource, so that helped Zimbabwe in the last 25 years to move. This is why despite what we are going through, the economic shocks, in the country and what I call the “small p” (political shocks), Zimbabwe is resilient and needs to be assisted to remain on track for development.

In terms of women’s engagement and performance Zimbabwe has also done well. Women’s equality is there, and I would look at it in the political space; much of it has not reached the 30 percent that is in the commitment, it is getting there slowly.

Women are out in the workforce. The workforce in Zimbabwe, both formal and informal, has a large proportion of women and this has been possible because of the two previous aspects that I have mentioned. Their health is well taken care of in terms of reproduction and second their literacy rate is high and this enables them to engage in development.

Around sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, Zimbabwe also has made significant progress.

What’s important to mention is Zimbabwe was one of the countries in the southern belt where the proportion was over 30 percent at some point when the epidemic was at its peak.

However, this has drastically dropped to about 13 percent when it comes to the adult prevalence rate for HIV.

This happened because of concerted efforts towards initially prevention — where information and skills were imparted to people — both in adult cohorts as well as young people on how to prevent.

The issue of stigma was addressed early in Zimbabwe and, therefore, people did not hide when they tested positive but rather came out.

The introduction of treatment with anti-retroviral therapy (ART) so that at least 90 percent of the population is screened and 90 percent of those screened and positive are put on treatment and 90 percent do stay on treatment. So the 90-90-90 strategy also contributed to this.

The strong partnerships that were rallied around HIV, and even as we speak today, the strong external partnerships that have helped sustain the low HIV prevalence especially in terms of treatment.

Mother to child transmission which was key earlier on has worked and it has been doing very well. There are a few pick-ups here and there but they are being addressed. In terms of young people, knowledge and strong education programmes on prevention have played a significant role.

Therefore, even when new infections emerged by 2015 (from 2010 new infections started creeping in again). However, this has been cut by almost 50 percent to date. This is because of the measures like education, treatment as a pillar of prevention. That doesn’t mean they are doing extremely well because the young girls, 15 to 24, like I mentioned before (because of poverty and economic shocks), transactional sex has taken a major position in young girls lives in Zimbabwe. More effort needs to be driven towards this group. If we don’t specifically target this group, we are going to get another generation of an epidemic that may be difficult to erase because of the large proportion of young people in the population.

However, the proportion of boys infected is much lower than the proportion of girls infected within this age group of 15 to 24.

Twice the girls are infected for every one boy. It’s 6 percent for boys and above 13 percent for girls and that’s not acceptable.

There should be innovative, targeting deliberate programmes that address needs in this group, the economic aspect is critical. If these girls are economically empowered, then they do not have to look for transactional sex to survive in academic institutions but also outside.

The other part is early marriages. I’m happy to say that one of the progress here in Zimbabwe is that there are favourable Bills now in Parliament awaiting to be moved forward like the Marriage Bill. Consent for marriage, what is the legal age for marriage? It used to be 16 now the Bill has recommended 18 and it’s on its way to be accepted.

In the past there were Bills like when girls got pregnant they didn’t get back to school. The return to school policy has now allowed girls, after they have had babies, to go back to school. When they have a baby and do not get back to school the likelihood that they will continue is still there.

But now if they go back to school and they are counselled and there’s guidance, it will reduce the number of girls becoming vulnerable to either getting infected or early unintended pregnancy, dropping out of school and the vicious poverty cycle.

When it comes to gender equality, gender equity and women’s empowerment, let me start as at the bottom. It is still unfinished business as a country Zimbabwe. In the political arena there needs to be a little more deliberate effort. We want more women elected into power and not a token. Probably there is need to look at the Constitution and look at how it can better address women’s engagement and participation not just in politics but also in the economic development arena.

Thirdly, gender mainstreaming. If you mainstream gender and are not careful, you can mainstream it and it comes out at the end of the stream. That is what happens a lot of times. We say we are mainstreaming by putting a sentence in a document to say women and men, that’s not enough. It’s not just about ensuring its insertion into documents but the operationalisation of the gender proposals within strategies, action plans and within policies. Unless we do that Zimbabwe has got a quite a long way to go when it comes to that.

However, I would be failing if I do not mention that some social cultural practices in Zimbabwe are still hindering progress of women. Apart from early engagement of girls to older men, there are several other social cultural aspects. It’s high time the woman is recognised as an equal being in society and not the lesser person. There should be clear laws and policies around women’s inheritance, women’s place in families, and in cultural society.

In politics, the recent extension of the women’s quota is an effort. However, I don’t think it’s right to talk about just expanding; it should not be given as a token.

The deserving women should be able to get it, and it should not be a way of rewarding women. Take, for example, political parties, how many of them actually nominate women to go for elected positions? Those are some of things I still worry about, I don’t think it should be a token to women, but rather a recognition that women can also do as men.

Gender based violence is the silent elephant in the room. I look at is as some bad virus that’s actually eating into the gains that have been made in development. Gender based violence is not just physical, it’s mental, social, psychological. So when we talk about gender violence it’s not just physical, we should consider the other aspects.

Of course, the physical is the worst because it does harm and can take up someone’s life. However, remember the social gender based violence, and the psychological can drive one to the edge that they end up with depression, anxiety. Some may end up committing suicide and degenerative neurological disease because of that. As UNFPA, we are the lead agency on addressing gender based violence within the UN system globally and in Zimbabwe.

There are certain predisposing factors that make women especially more vulnerable to gender based violence. One is in the normal setting like we are. However, during humanitarian emergency situations like when we had Cyclone Idai in March, women were displaced from their normal environment.

Up to now as we speak there are a number of people still living in camps in Chimanimani. The conditions under which they live, the social environment they are operating in — take for example the tent is there, the toilets are there, at night you are going to toilet — if it’s not well lit what stops you from being raped? Parents are leaving their children in the tents during the day to go and vend, and look for how to put some food for them so that they eat.

These kids are so vulnerable because there are prowlers around that take advantage of that.

There is also the element of sexual exploitation and abuse that links gender based violence. In such situations you find food for sex. Sometimes we were being told by women that they were not being given the rations because some men were saying you have to sleep with me first.

Again, in these instances UNFPA works with other UN agencies to ensure we are able to address and respond to the needs. That’s a humanitarian setting.

In a normal setting in development in general like now sometimes the social fabric erodes because of the economic problems that people are facing. People are going away to look for jobs, a lot of Zimbabweans have moved to South Africa, Australia, the UK and don’t carry the whole family. They leave a lot of them behind, so we are taking about the social fabric getting disintegrated.

Recently, I was in Bulawayo and I heard about Vuzu parties. I was in shock. Then you look and listen to the girls saying that’s the best thing that has happened to them. But, what if somebody comes and touches your shoulder, how many people can you have sex with in one night? For me that is gender based violence of the highest degree. A lot of these kids are left in child headed families, or they have grandmothers or aunties looking after them, who half the time don’t know what’s happening.

So because of the social fabric weakening there are no safety nets in society quite often. If a woman is abused sometimes even in a relationship or maybe in marriage, where will she run to? Unlike before when you could run to your mother, grandmother or auntie, that doesn’t exist anymore. As UNFPA we realised the need for shelters in the communities where people can be kept for a while to get over the acute episode and then assisted by social welfare to be able to be reintegrated back into society.

It doesn’t mean they are going back into the society where they were being abused. It may be good to go back live with parents or a grandmother, or aunt because we don’t want anyone dead. We think it’s more important for women to be alive, to be able to look after children and raise them. So we talk about safety shelters in the community, but then often these women are abused if you are raped whether by somebody you know or somebody you don’t know, we know what the outcomes of rape can be.

One is unintended unplanned pregnancy, STIs including HIV and the mental and psychological trauma. You need services that can respond to these.

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