It is 11am on a Sunday and Natsiraishe Maritsa, 17, is running through some workout drills with a group of sweating teenage girls from her neighbourhood in Epworth, a poor township nine miles (15km) south-east of the capital, Harare.
On a normal Sunday, Maritsa and her friends would be attending church, but the strict 30-day lockdown imposed by the government earlier this month has banned religious gatherings – so it’s time to catch up on a taekwondo training session.
Maritsa shouts instructions as the group punch, kick and break a sweat in the morning sun in her yard, where she has created a makeshift training ground.
Natsiraishe Maritsa runs through taekwondo stretching drills at her family home in Epworth.
Among those attending are young mothers and girls who were forced into child marriages, a practice common in Epworth and across Zimbabwe, where many under the age of 16 are married off by poor families who would otherwise struggle to provide for them.
According to Girls Not Brides, which campaigns for an end to child marriages, about 34% of girls in Zimbabwe are married before they are 18 while 5% are married before they are 15.
Maritsa works with young children from her community.
Maritsa keeps a journal of heart-rending testimonies from some of the teen mothers who confide in her about their abusive marriages. One of her most promising taekwondo students was recently stopped from attending training sessions by her husband.
“The girls are being abused. There is one lady who told me that she was stabbed with a knife by her husband and was threatened with death,” Maritsa says.
After losing most of her friends to early marriages from the age of 13, Maritsa looked for ways to raise awareness about the dangers of the practice.
Maritsa practises at home.
“I decided to do something for the girl child. I had to create a foundation so that they grow up in a better environment. Most of my friends got married due to poverty and others were forced by their guardians because their parents had died,” she says.
According to girls’ rights organisations, teenage pregnancies and marriages have been rising since Zimbabwe announced its first lockdown in March last year. The situation has been worsened by the protracted closure of schools and growing poverty, with families’ livelihoods suffering amid harsh economic conditions. Marrying off their young daughters is the easy way out.
Zimbabwe outlawed marriage for girls under the age of 18 in 2016, but the practice has continued and become more acceptable in poorer communities such as Epworth.
In 2018, Maritsa set up her foundation, Underaged People’s Auditorium, which seeks to stop more children becoming brides, through a combination of taekwondo and discussions about the dangers of early marriage.
With scant resources, the organisation has helped raise awareness of the dangers of child marriage for 40 teenage mothers and young women.
Driven by her desire to see an end to early marriages, Maritsa has used the lockdown to engage parents.
She has vowed to use her influence in taekwondo to further the campaign. In 2019 she won two gold medals at the Epworth Junior Cadet Championships and a silver medal at the Korean Ambassador trophy.
“A lot of people look down on Epworth, but I would like the world to know that something big can come out of a despised place,” Maritsa says.
Having started taekwondo at the age of five, Maritsa has inspired her 10-year-old sister to take up the sport with the help of their father – a taekwondo and fitness enthusiast.
Family life revolves around taekwondo in a household where everyone is an enthusiast.
Maritsa dreams of joining the Zimbabwe air force as an armament engineer and fancies a shot at representing her country in the sport.
“I took taekwondo as a sport because I want to take part in taekwondo [at the] Olympics. Although Covid-19 has slowed me down in terms of my training, I believe I can still make it,” Maritsa says, showing off her medals in the family lounge.
Her mother, Ndanatseyi Karigundu, says her daughter’s struggle against child marriage should be taken up by every adult in Epworth.
Maritsa with her brothers and sister and their mother.
“Adults must report what is happening within the community, but [that] is something that is not happening because of poverty. Parents are consenting to their little girls’ marriages and it is sad. It is not good for parents to accept lobola [dowry] for the young girls,” Karigundu says.
Mainly made up of families who migrated from rural areas in the early 1990s looking for work, Epworth’s girls are often married off to richer men or into polygamy.
Inspired by their daughter’s passion to see an end to child marriage, Maritsa’s parents have joined the campaign. They say, however, that it has been a significant task to change deep-rooted attitudes.
“We always hear sad stories here when Natsi is conducting her sessions. If we had resources, we would help them rebuild their lives. I am planning to help them start a soap-making business so that they can grow from there,” says her father, Richard Maritsa.
Maritsa’s parents, Richard and Ndanatseyi; Desire Mtunzi, 17: ‘I think child marriages are not good for the girl child.’
One of Maritsa’s students, 17-year-old Desire Mtunzi, agrees: “I have been coming for the sessions for about three months. It helps me keep fit and I learn about early marriages. I think child marriages are not good for the girl child.”
Maritsa is also determined to get teenage mothers back into school.
In Mbare, southern Harare, a group of young mothers gather for a support session at a community centre. Most of them dropped out of school after becoming pregnant.
At sessions organised by nonprofit group Ignite Youth girls are encouraged to create vision boards and set achievable targets for themselves, which include returning to school. An initiative that started as a Covid-19 response has become a life changing experience.
Master and pupils.
Emily Nderezima, 17, who could not finish her O-levels after becoming pregnant, oozes confidence after her first training. “I have learned how to take responsibility as a mum. I have the power and strength to achieve my goals,” she says.
Ignite Youth founder Tadzi Madzima says the programme is aimed at dealing with stigma associated with teenage pregnancy. Although Zimbabwean law now prevents pregnant girls being expelled from school, society still stigmatises them, she says.
“As much as we applaud the fact that teen mums can continue with their education after giving birth, a lot [is still needed] to educate parents, teachers and communities on how stigmatisation of teen mums is unfair and detrimental to their future.”