Mental health is a lived reality, but it is not taken seriously as a healthy priority in Africa due to some cultural beliefs. Many vulnerable girls who experienced teen pregnancies are experiencing mental health problems and it is affecting their education and wellbeing.
In the African context mental health is recognised when it reaches extreme conditions regarded as ‘kufamba uchinhonga muma bhini’ – when a person is homeless and picks food in rubbish bins. In Africa, mental health is also often associated with witchcraft. Many women and girls are losing life due to depression. It is often hard for the person suffering from depression to figure out and understand what will be going on.
In rural communities, it is even harder to visit a health practitioner and saying am suffering from depression, because such conditions are not considered as critical ill health. Health sector in Zimbabwe is curative focused and so under resourced. There are very few outreach programs assisting with information dissemination on what is mental health, the signs, and symptoms and how it can be cured. Continued psychosocial support for those in need is therefore lacking in most villages and communities.
Re-entry into education for girls who experienced child marriage need to be resourced well by the government. Mental health affects and may hinder performance of those who experienced teen pregnancies when they are back to school and with no adequate psycho-social support. Many girls who experienced teen pregnancies or child marriage, would love to go back to school but they are a lot of factors which leads them not to prioritise going back to school like childcare, stigma and discrimination at the school and the community.
Let me share with you, her story. Her name is Naome (not her real name) a survivor of rape and continued sexual abuse. She experienced teen pregnancy at the age of 15 due to sexual abuse. She was transferred from another town where she was living and came to a local school in rural area set-up. She enrolled form 3 and carried her pregnancy to full term whilst in school. When she gave birth, she missed her first term of Form 3.
She resumed class in second term, she would break earlier from class than normal so that she could walk back home 27 kilometres from school to go and breastfeed her baby and prepare for class the next day. She had to wean the baby at 11 months and the baby is now experiencing malnutrition. Her elderly mother is the baby’s care giver, relies on subsistence farming and is struggling to find good and nutritious food for the baby.
Due, to the long distance she travelled daily, Naome had to find a place to stay near the school with a distant relative. The place is rather noisy due to numerous pubs that are operated in the township. The place is not a safe and conducive environment for her as she is preparing to write examinations in November, this year. She is prone to further abuse and disturbances. Naome is a strong and hard-working young woman who is determined to break the chains of child marriage. Her situation stresses her. Rozaria Memorial Trust supports girls and young women like Naome on a weekly basis and offers psychosocial support and counselling services. The challenge facing survivors of teenage pregnancy requires a collective effort from relevent stakeholders including community structures such as case care workers and community health workers through the Department of Social Development.
Mental health is real and Noame is one of the many girls living in rural areas experiencing it. Mental health can be in many forms and it is often subtle. As the nation we are losing many girls who experience teen pregnancy including child marriage, who have a lot of potential to become future leaders and excel in school.
Therefore, no community development will happen in many communities because we are losing the potential of these many young girls. The government needs to resource towards re-entry, and they are no point to judge. Many girls suffer from mental health problems due to rape and the witnesses in communities often choose to be silent about it.
For communities to be safe, mental health awareness must be done to empower them and families to take necessary measured to prevent and to respond. It is everyone’s responsibility including myself in my line of work, community members and the government of Zimbabwe prioritise and ensure that these children are safe and have continued psychosocial support otherwise we risk losing the younger population due to mental health problems caused by sexual exploitation and abuse.