Keeping our eyes on sexual and reproductive health in the middle of a pandemic in Zimbabwe

By: Munashe Mhaka, sexual reproductive and health rights advocate, Africa free of New HIV infections (AfNHi) Youth Cohort

Munashe Mhaka, youth advocate from Zimbabwe
Munashe Mhaka, youth advocate from Zimbabwe

As I got off the call with Spiwe*, my heart sank, and my mind struggled to focus, knowing that my young friend could be in real physical danger and there was not much I could do about it. She had been enduring physical abuse at home for the past three months and had called to tell me she was thinking about ending her life.

Spiwe’s mother had remarried soon after the death of her father and she and her stepfather never saw eye to eye. Most of the time, their paths did not cross much because she was away at boarding school but following the reporting of the first case of COVID-19 in Zimbabwe, the government, like many other governments worldwide, took measures to curb the spread of the disease, including a nationwide lockdown. This meant that, unable to retreat to the refuge of school and without the excuse of going for church youth meetings, Spiwe, like many other victims of domestic abuse, was trapped with her abusers — her stepfather and her mother.

The outbreak of COVID-19 has seen a gigantic shift in the lifestyle of the entire globe. Since the disease is spread through respiratory droplets in the air at close range with an infected person and on surfaces, the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended measures to limit people’s physical interactions. Sadly, the restriction on travel, banning of social gatherings, and lockdowns have resulted in an increase of intimate partner abuse and domestic violence as women, children, and other at-risk persons are locked down with their aggressors. An upsurge of HIV transmission and unplanned pregnancies are expected as vulnerable individuals find it even more difficult to negotiate safe sex. The idle time from being out of schools and colleges is pushing young people deeper into drug abuse and risky sexual encounters, due to anxiety about the pandemic and personal vulnerability.

For my friend Spiwe, physical abuse is not the only trauma she has been enduring. Her stepfather has taken to sexually molesting her every night her mother is away on night duty at the hospital. Her phone call was to let me know that she was considering ending her life because she could not take any more physical and emotional pain. Fortunately, I was able to convince her to call a hotline where she could get counselling and possibly options on how to get to safety.

The attention and resources devoted to the COVID-19 response has shifted community engagement away from conversations and existing initiatives that address other public health issues such as HIV, TB, domestic violence, and sexual and reproductive health. While the world focuses on preventing deaths from the new pandemic, we should not risk losing lives due to lack of appropriate medical, physical, and psychosocial support for conditions we already know exist.

Name has been changed to protect this individual's privacy.

Editors Note: This story was originally published in IAVI Voices Newsletter, Issue 6. This story was reprinted with permission from IAVI