Chitungwiza, is a high density dormitory town, just south of the capital Harare. The majority of the half a million residents are low income informal traders. For a large number of them, their livelihoods were threatened by the coronavirus-induced lockdown.

With no means to put food on the table, some families resorted to marrying off their under aged daughters in the name of survival.

A victim of the practice herself, Kimberley Fusire took note of the devastating trend in her community and decided to become a peer counsellor to help girls who have been forced into marriages or relationships with older men. She founded the Shamwari Yemwana Sikana Centre.

“Now the problem is that the people at home want water. The moment I go back home without water, all of them are going to be mad because they need the water so they are going to tell me to find a way to get water. They do not care how I got it. They do not care we I got it. What they want is water and then the moment I go back home with sexually transmitted infections. I go back home with a pregnancy they tell me to go back where I come from yet they were the same ones telling me to go and work for them,” says Fusire.

Fourteen-year-old Nyasha (not her real name) is still reeling from trauma of being married off by her abusive.

“Sometimes I feel shy and angry. That money my fathers uses it to alcohol. Every pain I get he didn’t understand that how I felt going around selling things and he would take the money and buy alcohol,” says the victim.

Nyasha soon fell pregnant and due to complications, she lost the baby.

Her forced-husband would beat her everyday, until she mustered the courage to run away.

She is now receiving counselling and assistance from the Shamwari Yemwana Sikana Centre, which translated from Shona means Friend of the Girl Child.

“Before lockdown the statistics were one out of five girl entering or being forced into child marriages but now the rates have hiked up to three in five girls. You find them being subjected into child marriages. There is a significant number of girls that have entered into marriages during lockdown or even entered and came out of these unions during this period of lockdown,” says Programme coordinator Florence Mutake.

Mutake is concerned at how easily the girls are being exploited and is worried that there are little measures in place to protect them.

“The situation has been disturbing and worrisome at the same time because over and above the household poverty, we have established on some of the issues where girls are now being forced to enter into premature sexual behaviours or sexual exploitation. I would want to say selling sex per say but they are entering into the commercialization of sex simply because they are trying to meet their needs within the households and for them to meet these needs they have to get some kind of income coming into the household any how and much of the income of the parents and caregivers which has been disturbed and has presented an opportunity for some adults to exploit the girl child to sex for a living,” says Mutake.

For Nyasha her next step is trying to rebuild her life. Her spirit is not broken and hopes other girls in her situation are brave enough to find a way out.

“I want them to be brave, never give up, don’t kill yourself,” she says.

In March, the International Monetary Fund said South Africa’s neighbour is facing an economic and humanitarian crisis amid a deadly cocktail of macroeconomic instability, climate shocks and policy missteps. Report compiled by Noma Bolani and Ephert Musekiwa