UMZINGWANE, Zimbabwe - A thatched-roof roadside market in Umzingwane, along the Bulawayo-Gwanda highway in Matabeleland South Province, has become an important community meeting point where issues and solutions are discussed. 

Under the market shed, community members - mainly women - display their wares at stalls, including fruits and face masks. Posters on COVID-19 are plastered on the walls to make information on preventing transmission readily available to the community. 

Here, on a sun-drenched afternoon, the Apostolic Women’s Empowerment Trust (AWET) met with more than 20 behaviour change facilitators (BCFs) to discuss issues like sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), child marriage, poverty, gender relations and COVID-19 prevention. Founded in 2016, AWET advocates for an end to child marriage in Zimbabwe’s apostolic sects. These sects often blend Christianity with traditional beliefs and have differing norms and values on issues like child marriage, education, HIV/AIDS and maternal health.

Support from village heads and other stakeholders proved the community was not alone in the quest to find solutions.

"My role is to educate and refer the abused to the police and social workers.” - Samantha Ncube, Behaviour Change Facilitator

Grassroots engagement, grassroots solutions

Through community engagement activities like this one, AWET educates at the household level and offers reporting mechanisms for women and girls experiencing violence, such as toll-free numbers and referral pathways. 

Child marriages, poverty, domestic violence and extra-marital affairs topped the participants’ list of issues and concerns to be discussed with AWET field officers.
Samantha Ncube (22), a Behaviour Change Facilitator in Nhleyiyana Village, said child marriages were a big issue.

“Some girls want to be married to older men to escape poverty,” she explained. “On the other hand, some families pledge their daughters to older men. My role is to educate and refer the abused to the police and social workers.” 

AWET Field Officer, Nonkazimulo Sibanda, said that AWET has trained BCFs in parts of Umzingwane, where the abundance of gold panners and apostolic sects means there is a high level of sexual and gender-based violence. “It is the hot spot in this district,” said Ms. Sibanda. “There is a lot of child marriage and SGBV. We are training BCFs to help curb these issues.”

“Children are going where gold panning is being done,” elaborates AWET Head of Programmes, Hope Dunhira. “Girls are going out there to sell wares because there is hunger within the family due to COVID-19 and they end up being sexually violated.”  

Photo: UNICEF Zimbabwe/KB Mpofu

Umzingwane and Bulilimamangwe are among the 27 districts where AWET is working under the Spotlight Initiative. 

“AWET has trained 47 Behaviour Change Facilitators in Umzingwane and we are now working within the communities to sensitize and [ensure information flow] on issues to do with SGBV,” said Ms. Dunhira. 

Ms. Sibanda is excited about the impact of AWET training. “We now have more than five young volunteers helping here. The youth are willing to become BCFs, get involved at grassroots level in villages and teach in communities.” 

Feedback on the programme has been positive, with communities engaging and contributing to finding solutions.
“People are opening up and actively giving us helpful suggestions to improve the programme,” noted Ms. Sibanda. 

At Dombodema Clinic, Bulilimamangwe District also in Matabeleland South Province, AWET is educating more BCFs. Here, more men are willing to participate in the three-day training programme.

"We now have more than five young volunteers helping here. The youth are willing to become BCFs, get involved at grassroots level in villages and teach in communities.” - Nonkazimulo Sibanda, AWET Field Officer

Community collaboration and empowerment

AWET has introduced community feedback mechanisms to show accountability. 

“We have introduced a toll-free number, where people can call if there is any issue that they feel they cannot directly report within their communities for fear of victimization,” said Ms. Dunhira. “We have been receiving information and calls from the toll-free number where the community is appreciating the work that the Spotlight Initiative is doing.” 

Additionally, coordination with other actors has improved in Spotlight Initiative areas.  AWET works collaboratively with stakeholders like the Police Victim Friendly Unit; Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprise Development; Ministry of Health and Child Care, and Ministry of Youth, Sport, Arts and Recreation. 

“We are grateful because line ministries are giving us the support that we have always wanted within these communities,” said Ms. Dunhira. 

By Roselyne Sachiti. Originally from UNICEF Zimbabwe.