HARARE, Zimbabwe – Two years ago, Tambudzai Moyo* was studying mathematics at a college about 180 miles (300km) south of Harare, desperate to pass the subject, as it was a requirement for her to enroll in a teacher’s training course.
“One day after lessons, I met a lecturer who promised if I slept with him, he could help me pass and get me a place at the teacher’s college,” Moyo, 23, says. She had sex with her lecturer three times; the last time she started bleeding so heavily during intercourse that she fainted. When she went to the hospital, the nurses accused her of having had an abortion, Moyo says – but she didn’t even know she had been pregnant.
Soon after the incident, Moyo left the college and finished her classes at another institution. Even though she passed, “I never got the place for the teacher’s training course,” she says. “The lecturer used me and dumped me.”
The experience was traumatizing for Moyo and affected her relationship with her parents. “I became a lost sheep,” she says. So she went to stay at a safe house run by the charity Female Student Network Trust (FSNT). In the one and a half months she was there, FSNT counselors helped Moyo regain her self-esteem, helping her feel strong enough to move back in with her parents and keep trying to get a place on a teacher training course.
In 2015, FSNT carried out a national baseline survey on sexual harassment, with 3,425 students – 2,479 of them female – at 21 tertiary institutions. The results showed that 94 percent of female students surveyed reported being the targets of sexual harassment. Researchers also discovered that only four of Zimbabwe’s colleges and universities had sexual harassment policies in place, with a fifth working on a draft policy. The majority of perpetrators of sexual harassment were male lecturers and male non-academic staff, the survey said.
Founded in 2005, FSNT works with 36 institutions in Zimbabwe, and since last year has been providing safe spaces for female students who experience sexual harassment at college or vocational school. So far in its Harare-based safe houses, the organization has taken in more than 10 girls.
Young women can stay at an FSNT safe house for up to three months, and get access to psychosocial support, legal aid and counseling services, along with free meals and healthcare. The group also gives some women financial support to enable them to complete their studies after they leave the safe house.
“Students come here hopeless, destitute and rejected, but we help them not only restore their self-esteem but amend relationships with their families and ensure they continue with their education,” says FSNT director Evernice Munando.
The organization also helps students who get pregnant while at school. “Most of the families blame the girl child, throwing her out of the home, resulting in her marrying at an early age,” says Munando.
Tendai Gawi*, almost suffered that fate when she became pregnant with her college boyfriend. “[He] demanded I undergo a DNA test before he would accept my pregnancy,” says Gawi. Meanwhile, Gawi’s father was insisting that her boyfriend compensate him for the money he had spent on Gawi’s education, as she had dropped out after becoming pregnant.
“The situation had gotten out of hand and, as a result, Gawi left home, tried to commit suicide and ended up staying in the streets,” says Munando.
After three days of living on the streets, Gawi, now 20, went to an FSNT safe house, where the counselors brought together her parents and her boyfriend’s family to negotiate a solution. It paid off. “My father bought me all the supplies for my child and I am going back to school,” says Gawi, smiling. Her boyfriend’s father agreed to pay $40 a month towards the upkeep of the now three-month-old baby boy, who will be looked after by her aunt while she finishes her education.
In November 2016, FSNT embarked on a countrywide campaign, Smart Girls, to raise awareness about sexual abuse and promote women’s empowerment. The organization has been conducting training sessions on college campuses to educate female students about their rights and how to recognize the various forms of abuse, and to encourage them to report abuse without fear.
“Our training is geared towards teaching our girls to value themselves, boost their self-esteem, and practice responsibility and leadership,” says Munando. She also calls for a national policy that clearly defines sexual harassment and how it should be dealt with.
Moyo, who calls FSNT a home away from home, says the group’s safe house gave her the courage and support she needed to pick up the pieces from her ordeal with her lecturer and move on with her life. But she would like to see a time when those kinds of safe houses are no longer needed.
“Female students need to be educated on sexual harassment,” she says. “Students should be able to focus on their education, and tertiary institutions should put in place departments that deal with such issues transparently.”
*The names of some of the women in this article have been changed to protect their identities.