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MBIRE, Zimbabwe Fifteen-year-old Shamiso Nyamutamba has endured more than her share of tragedy. When she was three, her mother died. Two years later, her father also passed away. She went to live with an abusive uncle, and was nearly forced to marry an older man. She has only recently found peace – and the promise of a better future – with the help of a unique programme designed to empower adolescent girls, in Mahuwe in the rural Mbire District located in north-eastern Zimbabwe.

Too many girls like Shami face entrenched discrimination and violence, abuses often abetted by deep poverty in rural Zimbabwe. But with knowledge of her human rights, and the support of other girls and women through the Sista2Sista Club implemented by partners supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Zimbabwe under the Integrated Support Programme, funded by the governments of Britain, Ireland and Sweden, this extraordinary girl was able to break free.


An uphill battle

When Shami’s parents died, both from HIV-related causes, her grandparents could not afford to care for her. An uncle from Harare, Zimbabwe’s capital, offered to bring her to the city and enrol her in school.

But when she arrived, he sent her to work instead. She performed menial jobs, even physical labour, and her uncle was often violent.

As she grew older, the abuse worsened. She recalls that one day, he told her, “l intend to go to bed with you.”

Shami reported him to an aunt, who took her away from Harare. This time, Shami went to live with her sister on a farm.

But her sister could not afford to send her to school. An attempt to obtain an education grant for orphans was unsuccessful. Finally, her sister sent her back to their home village in Mbire District to live with their grandparents.

They also could not afford to send Shami to school full time and the days she did attend she would walk over 20km and often go hungry. She did menial jobs in exchange for food. Her grandparents hoped marriage might change her situation. In the traditional Shona practice of ‘kuzvarira’, poor girls are married off to men in more affluent families, often in exchange for food and other materials for a bride price, called “lobola”. Following this tradition, a marriage was hastily arranged between Shami and an older neighbour. 


A turning point

Around the same time, Shami learned about the Sista2Sista club, a girls’ empowerment programme run through UNFPA’s Integrated Support Programme, funded by DFID, Irish Aid and SIDA.

Launched in September 2013, the Sista2Sista club offers a safe place where vulnerable adolescent girls can speak with mentors and each other about their problems. Girls in the club learn about sexual and reproductive health and rights, financial literacy, and how to navigate difficult social situations, including coercive relationships. The programme also aims to give girls the confidence and self-esteem to stand up for themselves. Girls in the village encouraged Shami to attend a session at the Kodzero Sista2Sista club (‘Kodzero’ is a Shona word meaning ‘our rights”), implemented by UNFPA partner Zimbabwe AIDS Prevention and Support Organisation (ZAPSO).

“At first Shamiso was very quiet and isolated. She kept to herself a lot and took a long time to open up to me and the group,” said Memory Makanjera, the club’s mentor and facilitator. “I told her it is okay to tell me any problems you are facing. Feel free to talk to me anytime.”

After a few sessions, Shami told Memory about the impending marriage. Memory alerted Mrs. Mereni Chakanetsa, the ZAPSO Programme Officer in Mbire who immediately reported to the police. The marriage plans were quickly cancelled, the man was reprimanded and warned to stay away from Shami and other young girls.

Shami is also now the chairperson of the Kodzero Sista2Sista Club, where she encourages other girls to join so they can learn the same lessons she did. “Sista2Sista taught me that early marriage is wrong...and to report cases of abuse straight away,” said Shami. She has also joined the Young People’s Network on SRH/HIV/AIDS, founded by the National AIDS Council (NAC) supported by UNFPA, and attends national meetings in Harare where she works with other passionate young people promoting SRHR in Zimbabwe.

A bright future

The club also encourages girls to get an education. With the intervention of the Sista2Sista programme and the assistance and generosity of ZAPSO and Ms. Chakanetsa, who also invited Shami to stay with her in her family home so she would be close to school, Shami has been able to continue her education.

When I met Shamiso I was really touched. I felt it was important for her to go to school and not sit at home all day so I invited her to stay with me and my husband.

Shami was able to attend school full time and has proven to be academically gifted, even winning awards.

Just as things were looking up for Shami, she began to fall extremely ill. She was coughing and started developing sores. Sista2Sista mentor Memory decided to bring Shami for a HIV test. She tested positive.

“It turns out I was born with HIV but I did not know all this time,” said Shami. “What I am so grateful for is that when the family and the Sista2Sista club found out my status, they accepted me and loved me like a family. I am now on my medication and I am healthy. I can now look forward to my future.” 

The programme has so far had an enormous impact: so far; over 22,000 Zimbabwean girls have been enrolled and actively participated in the Sista2Sista Clubs. And many of these girls have committed to improve not only their own circumstances but those of other girls as well.

Shami herself dreams of becoming a police officer. “I want to join the police so I can protect other young girls from being abused.”

By Victoria Walshe