Gaps in SRHR and social inequalities hinder economic growth
By Byron Mutingwende
Kudzai Moyo (not real name) was born into a polygamous family to parents who are staunch members of the Johane Marange Apostolic Church in Bocha, Manicaland Province.
Kudzai, like any other girl in her community started primary education at the local Mafararikwa School. Her father, a bearded middle-aged man had seven wives, the first 13 years his junior. Those who came after the first wife were mostly teenagers when they got married.
The first wife had eight children, the second and the third had six each, the fourth had five, the fifth gave birth to three while the sixth and seventh had two children each respectively. That was a family of 40 people in total. Mafararikwa is in Climatic Region Five and receives below normal rainfall to adequately support crop life. As a result, the family depended on supplementary food either from well-wishers or bought through barter trade.
Kudzai was always on top of her class academically from Grade 1 to 7. At 13, Kudzai accompanied her family members to a religious pilgrimage at Johane Marange Shrine in Bocha.
“It was in June and I was just four months shy of sitting for my Grade 7 examinations in October of that year. The year 1992 will forever remain perched on my mind because of the ravaging drought that hit the entire country. The food rations that we received from the government were not enough to feed my father’s entire family. I vividly remember my father introducing me to a pot-bellied, famous and wealthy businessman from Mutare urban. At first I thought it was just a mere formality only to be shocked out of my shell when he was introduced as my new husband,” Kudzai narrated, anger written all over her face.
She explained that just after the introductions, she was separated from her family during the entire course of the pilgrimage. The bot-bellied man told her that she had become a part of his large family comprising 16 other wives.
“My worst fear was that I could no longer proceed with my education in those circumstances. I had not started my menstrual cycle and could not comprehend what being someone’s wife meant. My first sexual intercourse was actually a rape case as the old man forced himself on me. I cried out loudly but the other wives reprimanded me. The following year I had my first-born child at the age of 14. We were not allowed to use contraceptives and when my first child was just a year-old I conceived and had another child the following year. That was the trend until I had eight children in total,” Kudzai recounted.
All the eight children were delivered at home. Midwives who belonged to the same religious sector attended to the delivery. Under those circumstances, the midwives used unorthodox methods as using razor blades to cut the umbilical cords as well as the use of unsterilized birth aids.
Kudzai and her children did back-breaking work at one of her husband’s many farms on the account that she was much younger than the other wives of her given husband. Ideally, in the polygamous set-up the older wives were subjected to less demanding chores like supervising shopkeepers and counting cash for the day and surrendering it to the husband.
While Kudzai was given off to marriage at a tender age, her less intelligent brothers were allowed to pursue further education. Most of them are now employed and financially stable whilst she depends on the “benevolence” of her husband for survival.
Speaking on the occasion to share findings of The State of World Population Report 2017 at the United Nations Information Centre in Harare, Abiggail Msemburi, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Zimbabwe Assistant Representative said extreme inequality slows economic growth.
“Inequality is often seen as a lopsided distribution of wealth but is more complex as shown by disparities between sexes, races and ethnicities, and between the urban and rural residents. The two most critical, intertwined dimensions to this are inequalities in realising sexual, reproductive and health rights (SRHR) and gender inequality,” Msemburi said.
Msemburi bemoaned the fact that most women do not have a right to decide when to be pregnant and how many children to have, as it is usually the prerogative of the husband. The UNFPA findings revealed that the contraceptive prevalence rate was low in developing countries and high in the developed world. Globally, the unmet contraceptive needs stand at 51 percent.
The unmet demand for contraceptives results in higher risks of illness and death from pregnancy and childbirth; and women lose opportunities for better education and employment, potential for a better life and solidify their position at the bottom of the economic ladder.
In addition, gender inequality affects how much control a woman has over her own life and give men the power to prevent wives from working outside the home.
Yu Yu, the UNFPA Zimbabwe Deputy Representative said inequity has lasting repercussions for women’s health, work life and earnings potential and for their contribution to their nations’ development and elimination of poverty.
In explaining the impact of inequality on the reproductive rights of women and girls, Yu Yu gave an analogy of obstetric fistula.
“Obstetric fistula, a wound that leaves a hole in the birth canal, is caused by prolonged, obstructed labour. It has been virtually eliminated in the world’s wealthier countries and in better-off communities within developing countries. Fistula is preventable and treatable, but persists due to weak health systems, poverty, gender inequality, and early marriage and childbearing. A fistula is a tragic manifestation of our failure to protect the reproductive rights of the poorest, most excluded women and girls,” he said.
He added that countries seeking to tackle economic inequality should start by addressing related and underlying inequalities, such as in reproductive health.
“Reproductive health and rights are critical but under-appreciated variables in the solution to economic inequality and can propel countries towards achieving the top United Nations Sustainable Development Goal: eliminating poverty. The Sustainable Development Goals aim to build a more equitable world–for people, planet and prosperity for all. Achieving shared prosperity requires supporting the capabilities of the furthest behind first.”
He paid tribute to girls empowerment programmes like Sista2sista which is helping to change the lives of many girls, particularly those in rural areas.
“Through this program girls are provided information on sexual and reproductive health and rights, HIV prevention empowering them with information to make informed choices. Let me share a story of fifteen-year-old girl Shamiso, a beneficiary of the program. She has endured more than her share of tragedy. When she was three, her mother died. Two years later, her father also passed away. All were to do with HIV. She went to live with an abusive uncle, was abused, and was nearly forced to marry an older man.
“Imagine, what she would have contributed to the dividend in such state. The programme brought her back to school full time and she has proven to be academically gifted, even winning awards. She also started HIV treatment after being tested positive in the programme. And she started to support other vulnerable young girls to get out difficult situations proving that as a young person it is not just about receiving services but being an active provider of these services.”