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Girls' education and empowerment in Zimbabwe
“I once had a friend called Nerissa,” says Mitchell softly. “She used to come to school with bruises all over her body. She didn’t want to tell me her problem. I later found out that her uncle used to beat her every day. He used to tell her that he was not the one who killed her parents and that he had no money to feed her…things like this happen to children everyday.”
As a member of one of UNICEF’s Girls’ Empowerment clubs – or GEMs – Mitchell has been given the confidence to not only identify abuse, but to speak out against it. For Mitchell and hundreds of other Zimbabwean children, it is a critical change.
“As a member of the GEM club I am here to help other children who are being abused,” she says. This type of peer-to-peer counselling has become particularly relevant in the wake of Zimbabwe’s 'clean up' campaign. The result has been the mass destruction of tens of thousands of homes, leaving more than 500,000 people homeless – more than 200,000 of them children – and more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
For Mitchell the club has become a valuable source of information and life skills essential to a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe. “I like Wednesdays at school the most because that’s when we meet as the GEM club. In the club we are taught how to be assertive and confident. We also learn about child sexual abuse and the rights of the girl child and how to do well at school.”
In a country where an estimated one in six 15 to 24-year-old females are now infected with HIV – and where orphaned girls in Zimbabwe are now 3 times more likely to contract HIV than their non-orphaned peers – the GEM clubs also play a key role in HIV prevention. Sexual negotiation skills – how to say no – are taught, as are messages about abstinence and condom use.
“It's time to break the cycle of transmission of HIV and to end all abuse of children,” said UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe Dr. Festo Kavishe. “GEM clubs play a key role in empowering Zimbabwean girls. We must continue to rise to challenges of the continual [arrival of new] teachers and inadequate funding for the clubs. The growth of children such as Mitchell, and the safety of those like Nerissa, depend on it.”
Despite Zimbabwe having one of the world’s worst HIV infection rates –an estimated 20.1 per cent of adults – a lack of resources to invest in young people’s education, development and protection has meant that two-thirds of young Zimbabweans do not have adequate knowledge about HIV transmission and prevention. This, combined with an orphan crisis and economic hardship forcing many girls out of school, places Zimbabwean girls as some of the most vulnerable on the continent.
Benefits for the entire community
The GEM clubs ensure that even children who are not members of a club benefit, through weekly theatre performances. Using plays, music and dance, club members create and raise awareness on issues of children’s rights, child sexual abuse, and other pertinent issues affecting children. Mitchell’s pride shines across her face: “At the GEM club we have been tasked to educate the whole community about children’s rights!”
And of course, the clubs have a significant personal impact too. Mitchell is quick to point out how much more confidence she now has. “Before I joined the club I used to be shy and I would not participate in class. Now I am happy to say that I can actively participate in class. My wish is to be the best student in my class this term…and to make sure friends like Nerissa get all the help they need.”