Officials in Zimbabwe say the pandemic is exasperating the country's teenage pregnancy crisis. When the coronavirus forced the country's 15 million people to enter lockdown, girls were shut out from access to clinics and contraceptives, the Associated Press reports. Officials also said many of the girls faced sexual abuse while they were forced to stay home.

Facing a dire economic crisis during the pandemic, some girls looked to marriage and pregnancy as a way out of poverty. According to women’s affairs minister Sithembiso Nyoni, about 5,000 students became pregnant in just the first two months of 2021. 

Zimbabwe was already facing a serious issue with teen pregnancy before the pandemic. One in every three girls in the country is wed before age 18, according to the AP. The country's inability to enforce laws, poverty and harmful cultural practices have been identified as causes of the crisis.

In Aug. 2020, the government changed a law that banned pregnant students from schools. Still, many girls didn't return to school due to economic hardships and the fear of facing stigma among their peers. 

“People would laugh at me. Some would point and ask in ridicule; ‘What’s up with that belly?’” 13-year-old Virginia Mavhunga, who tried to return to school while pregnant after the policy change, said, according to the AP.

Speaking with the AP, Mavhunga said the older man who impregnated her promised to marry her but later denied paternity. 

According to Zimbabwean law, a person convicted of sexual intercourse or “an indecent act” with anyone younger than 16 can get a fine or up to 10 years in jail. Although Mavhunga is only 13, her family didn’t follow through on a statutory rape case with the police. 

About 3,000 girls in Zimbabwe dropped out of school in 2018 because of pregnancies

Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said families usually try to persuade the offender to marry the girl and give her family cattle or money, the AP reports. The families often choose not to file a report if the perpetrator agrees to their demands.  

About 3,000 girls in Zimbabwe dropped out of school in 2018 because of pregnancies. The number increased to 4,770 in 2020 and 5,000 in 2021. Other African countries such as Botswana, Namibia, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, South Africa and Zambia are also facing a crisis in teen pregnancy.

“Most parents are still steeped in the old way of doing things,” Tsitsi Chitongo, an advocate for girls' rights, said, according to the AP. “They prefer to have the child married, even if she is under the age of 18. They tell us, ‘I am already struggling to take care of my family; I can’t afford an extra mouth when the girl gives birth.’ So children are being chased away from home.”  

Natsiraishe Maritsa, a 17-year-old girl who founded the Vulnerable Underaged People's Auditorium Initiative, is striving to educate the community about the consequences of early pregnancy and early marriage.

“I have realized that child marriages deprive the girl child of her rights,” Maritsa told VOA News. “And I have seen young girls diagnosed with fistula, I have seen young girls sink deep into poverty, I have seen young girls being abused because of child marriages. So, I realized that I had to stand up and fight for this noble cause.”