I watched some of my young friends being maried off to elderly men in our church

For Nokuthula Zhou* being an adolescent in Gutsaruzhinji, a resettlement area, on the foot of the Boterekwa escarpment in Shurugwi was not a bed of roses.

She had to stomach her church’s dogma that allows elderly men to mɑrry “teenage” wives and simultaneously battling l0ve “bids” from the marauding illegal gold panners on her way to and from Chironde Secondary School, 7km away.

At the same time, Zhou had to contain growth spurts and pubǝrty changes.

The now 27-year-old mother of one recounted how as an adolescent girl, 14 years ago, she was at the mercy of suitors, mainly elderly men in white robes and dirty overalls.

She was between a rock and a hard place.

“We were alienated from the congregation after my mother withdrew me from a church conference after she learnt that an elderly congregant wanted to take me as his third wife,” Zhou, who now operates a grocery shop in Mkoba suburb, Gweru, said.

A former member of the Johanne Marange African Apostolic Church, Zhou said she saw some of her friends being forced to mɑrry elderly men in church while others were lured by the power of gold.

“My father said he was raised in a p0lygamous family and he never wanted us to be in such situations when we got mɑrriǝd,” Zhou said.

“He said he was in this church because of his late father, but he was prepared to leave for anything that he did not believe in, that’s why he was forced out after my mother refused to hand me over to this elderly suitor.

“We were forced to abandon our home in Chironde to live in Shurugwi town where my father was working.”

Gutsaruzhinji is one of the resettlement areas set up by government as a cooperative shortly after independence with the aim of improving the livelihoods of rural communities.

However, despite the community being dominated by the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church there has been diminishing influence of the church’s doctrine and belief system over its members’ behaviour and conduct due to the invasion of the area by illegal gold miners.

Some members of the church also joined the illegal gold mining bandwagon and inherited all the malevolent acts that go with it.

A handful of villagers in Gutsaruzhinji have remained devoted to the church and are living by its dogma, while others have chosen to be part of the sect although sidelining some harmful practices.

“I am a member of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, and at 18, no one has bothered to mɑrry me in church,” said Elizabeth Gudhu.

“My parents do not tolerate that and they have told me that I will marry whomever I want when I am ready.”

Gudhu, who desires to do a sewing course before she gets mɑrriǝd, said she was among a few girls in the church with the privilege of having parents that protect their daughters.

“I think I am one of the luckiest,” she said.

“Instead, I am now moving around the community raising awareness on the dangers of early marriages.

“My other task is to engage members of our church to seek medical help in clinics or hospitals.”

Gudhu is among scores of adolescent girls and young women in Shurugwi district who have been engaged by a local non-governmental organisation — Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (Awet) as behaviour change facilitators.

Awet programmes manager for Ward 18 in Shurugwi Ntombizodwa Revesai said her group was an inter-faith based organisation that is mandated to advance the rights of adolescents and women issues and mainstreaming of gender in apostolic church activities.

“We intend to change the negative perceptions society holds about the apostolic community through dealing with contemporary issues facing the apostolic community whilst being sensitive to the members’ expectations,” said Revesai.

She said her organisation was fully cognisant of the fact that apostolic churches have different beliefs, norms, values and perceptions on key social issues such as early/child marriage, education, HIV and Aids, maternal new-born child health, gender-based violence as well as adolescent ƨǝxuɑl reproductive health and rights, among others.

Moreblessing Dhavu, who is a behaviour change facilitator in Ward 18 explained some of the situations that they have come across during the execution of their duties.

“There is a lot of gender-based violence in this community, mainly from members of the church and from illegal gold miners,” she said.

“Young girls bear the brunt of these people and they have no one to protect them.

“We have a situation where a violent illegal gold miner (referred to as Bhuru in local lingo) impregnated twins aged 15 years and he has refused to take responsibility.

“No one in the community wants to approach him because he is violent.

“It is his habit to imprǝgnɑte young girls and refuse to take responsibility.”

Dhavu said families with their teenage girls were living in fear of the marauding illegal gold miners.

“Some of these makorokozas are locals, but we now have others who came from other places lured by gold and they set up homes here,” she said.

“We have engaged police and community leaders over these issues, but they are yet to be addressed.”

Dhavu, however, said despite these challenges, she and her colleagues were moving around the community raising awareness on a number of issues.

“Part of my job is to visit homes of the apostolic church members whom I encourage to seek medical help when they fall ill,” she said.

“We condemn early or child mɑrriɑgǝs.

“As behaviour change facilitators, we are trying to change the mind-set of the community with regard to health-seeking behaviour.

“We sometimes face barriers as some families don’t allow us at their homes.”

Dhavu said they have seen a lot of improvement in the health-seeking behaviours of the apostolic church women.

“Some women even visit clinics secretly to get help while others would go to Shurugwi Hospital or Zvamabande clinic at Donga away from the community,” she said.

Peter Muzarakuza, the National Aids Council (NAC) district Aids coordinator for Shurugwi said they were working with a number of organisations in addressing issues that drive the spread of HIV.

“In this mining area of Shurugwi, there is thehigh risk of women in the apostolic sects engaging in unprotected ƨǝx because of their religious beliefs that family planning is against reproduction,” he said.

“The majority of girls and young women are mɑrriǝd off early and are often faced with violence.”

According to data from NAC, Shurugwi is the epicentre of HIV in the Midlands Province, with the highest HIV infection rate of 15,62% while the HIV incidence rate is pegged at 0,4%.

Muzarakuza said Awet programmes in ward 18 were meant to help adolescent girls and young women embrace ƨǝxual and reproductive health rights.

Revesai said they noted some change of behaviour in the community.

“We conduct behaviour change training focusing on basic facts about HIV, hygiene, and the mǝnstrual cycle and we noted a lot of change,” she said.

“A significant number of apostolic members are being tested for HIV, especially when they come for neonatal booking.

“The need for health education is high among the Marange Apostolic sect.”

Revesai said the apostolic church members were now making their own sanitary wear with funding from Unki Mine for personal use, for donation in the community, and resale at a lower price.

“We recently purchased 30 singer sewing machines and two over-locking machines for use by the girls and young women in manufacturing the sanitary pads,” she said.

NAC provincial manager for Midlands Mambeu Shumba said they have come up with a cocktail of intervention programmes in mining communities such as Shurugwi.

“We have programmes where we raise awareness on HIV and Aids, especially targeting these hotspot areas like Shurugwi,” he said.

“We also have peer-led intervention programmes in these communities and we also have c0nd0m distribution programmes.”

Mambeu said they have also partnered a number of organisations to address other issues such as gender-based violence, which is rife in mining communities.

Gender-based violence is a cause and consequence of HIV — it increases the risk of HIV transmission and is used against people living with HIV and key populations at higher risk of HIV infection.

According to UNAids, in 2020, 4 900 young women or adolescent girls aged 15-24 became infected with HIV every week.

One in three women and adolescent girls around the world have suffered physical and/or ƨǝxual violence from their husbands, male partners or strangers.

“Gender-based violence is rampant here, particularly for adolescent girls and young women who have to endure the violent illegal gold miners and apostolic church members,” Dhavu said.

“We need to get rid of these harmful practices.”

Midlands police spokesperson Inspector Emmanuel Mahoko said no one was above the law and communities should report to the police any act of violence.

“Everyone is subject to the constitution and the law and no-one including Mabhuru is above the law,” he said.

“As police we are mandated to protect communities, including those with rogue elements.

“We only act when a report is made.”

Mahoko encouraged communities to report cases of gender-based violence and other forms of violence.

* Not her real name

— The Standard

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