Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Womens' Lives Cut Short

AIDS epidemic and failed government policies are blamed for women’s plummeting life expectancy.
By Roselyn Godobori
At 18, Abigail Murewa is already a mother. She has no income and dropped out of school before completing the basic eleven years of schooling. Her pretty face and her direct stare haunt anyone who looks at her and the malnourished baby strapped on her back.

One thing is certain: she is likely to be dead by the time her son is aged just 16. According to the United Nations' World Health Organisation, WHO, the life expectancy of Zimbabwean women by early 2006 was only 34 years, down from 36 in 2004 and 62 in 1990.

Thirty-four: an age where women in stable democracies are thinking about careers, starting families, or buying homes. While they look towards their bright futures, Zimbabwean women face only a painful cruel death.

Thirty-four is by far the lowest life expectancy in the world. Even in war-torn Iraq, said WHO in its report, women can expect to live to the age of 51, and 42 in Afghanistan. In poor countries like Cuba and North Korea, women's life expectancy is 75 and 65 respectively.

Inscriptions on the headstones of hundreds of graves at the fast-filling Granville cemetery in Harare tell a harrowing tale about life expectancy in Zimbabwe, where an alarming 3,500 citizens a week die from HIV/AIDS, higher than the overall death rate in Darfur where Sudanese government forces are accused of genocide.

The black metal plates with white-painted birth dates are symbolic of the mounting nationwide death toll. In one row, the plates read Sibongile Sibanda born 5 March 1981; Mary Muzanenhamo born 16 June 1983; Gloria Masawi born 1 November 1979 and Agnes Marimo born 5 October 1977. They all died in December last year.

A report headlined "Most Harare cemeteries almost full" in the state-run daily Herald newspaper said a critical shortage of burial space was looming in the capital city, as most cemeteries were almost full owing to high mortality. It quoted a town planning department report, which noted that the tree main burial places in Harare, Mabvuku, Warren Hills and Granville cemeteries, were filling up at such a fast rate that there will be no burial plots available before the end of 2007.

David Coltart, a member of parliament for the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, said this was just the tip of an iceberg. “Cemeteries are filling up throughout the country. But no blood is being spilt - people are just fading away, dying quietly and being buried quietly with no fanfare - and so there is little international media attention," he said.

Zimbabwe, together with South Africa, used to have one of the highest life expectancy rates in Africa. At independence in 1980, life expectancy for women was 60 years, peaking at 62 in 1990, when Zimbabwe had one of the finest public health systems in Africa.

Since 1990, the decline has happened at a frightening rate. By the end of 2000, the year Mugabe launched his violent invasions of commercial farms that were the engine of the economy, women's life expectancy was down to 44. The most recent data was collected two years ago, and WHO officials admit off the record to their fear that women's life expectancy may dip below thirty years of age by the end of 2007.

Zimbabwe and its people are suffering multiple crises, so there are numerous reasons for the plunge in women's life expectancy.

Critics say the low life expectancy cannot be solely blamed on the AIDS epidemic. Failed government policies in all areas are also responsible.

Shari Appel, of the Solidarity Peace Trust, a non-governmental humanitarian organisation, said, “The health system has totally collapsed. Now access to education is going the same way and girls are the first to miss out. In the overcrowding, domestic violence and sexual abuse are rife."

The government's reaction to what amounts to a vast cull of its people has been deeply callous. Didymus Mutasa, the minister of state security, said when asked about the accelerating death rate, "We would be better off with only six million people (less than half the population level in 2000), with our own people who support the liberation struggle (meaning supporters of the ruling party). We don't want all these extra people."

Coltart said the economic meltdown - Zimbabwe has the fastest declining economy in the world, with unemployment running at more than 80 per cent - and the food crisis were central to women's low life expectancy. WHO put its estimate of Zimbabwean men's life expectancy rate in early 2006 at 37 years, and declining.

In some countries with proper health care and access to anti-retrovirals, ARVs, HIV sufferers can now live with the disease for decades. But Zimbabwe’s health system has all but collapsed.

Pledges of free ARVs from the government contrast with the reality of corrupt, incompetent and threadbare health care even for those with money - for those without it is completely out of reach. State clinic dispensaries are empty and the brain drain has seen thousands of qualified nurses and hundreds of doctors quit the country. Even dying comes at a cost. Families wanting to collect a relative's body from hospitals must provide a coffin to claim them. Many can no longer afford this.

Coltart, a white Zimbabwean who was one of the most prominent critics of Zimbabwe's former white minority Rhodesian government, said, “The pathetic amounts spent on ARV medication by a government that is more concerned about importing military aircraft from China than it is in protecting the lives of its people have a telling effect on how long the people can expect to live." Among other factors, he said, were the forcible displacement of some 700,000 of the urban poor in Mugabe's notorious Operation Murambatsvina (Operation Drive Out the Trsh) and malnutrition among millions of people as a result of the collapse of the agricultural system in a country was known as the breadbasket of Africa.

At the centre of the catastrophe is the destruction of the country’s entire social fabric. The institution of marriage has been wrecked as family spouses go different ways in search of livelihoods. More than 3.5 million Zimbabweans live outside the country. While one spouse, usually but not always the woman, stays back home to look after the children, the other goes into the diaspora to supplement the family income. Living separately means the two often have other sexual partners, exposing both to HIV infection.

Stories of young women taking on boyfriends in the absence of their men are harrowing.

Tafadzwa Muswe, who lived in Harare’s densely populated working class suburb of Mbare, died two weeks before her thirtieth birthday. To supplement her meagre income, she had joined friends who date older and more prosperous “sugar daddies”. Her various sugar daddies helped to keep her eight-year-old child clothed, fed and educated. They also paid her rent, which was four times her income. They showered her with gifts and jewelry, but unfortunately also infected her with HIV.

With no access to ARVs, her friends and relatives watched Tafadzwa Muswe fade away and die.

Although Memory Nyoni, another young woman, also died young from AIDS, her story is different from that of Tafadzwa. She was married to a man who was forced to migrate to neighbouring South Africa to try to earn an income that would enable him to send his kids to good schools, feed and clothe them and do other things that a good father likes to do. But because of the long absences, both had strings of sexual relationships that brought HIV into their home.

Both Memory and Tafadzwa were victims of Zimbabwe's economic situation, with widespread, deep and deepening poverty. When women have to scrounge for food they have little or no control on their sexuality. They cannot demand safe sex from the legions of exploitative men. The Women and Aids Support Network, WASN, says women are dying prematurely because ARVs are inaccessible to the majority of people, especially women who have always been disadvantaged economically and culturally.

WASN programme coordinator Gladys Chiwome said, “Because of the women’s economic position and our culture, women cannot negotiate for safer sex and because of marriage, they even suffer more - AIDS is brought into their homes and there is nothing they can say or do to protect themselves.

“These women feel that they cannot survive outside marriage because they are totally dependent on their husbands and they have no say on sexual matters.”

The foremost critic of Mugabe and his ZANU PF elite, Pius Ncube, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Bulawayo, said, "Zimbabwe is not a nation at war. It used to be able to feed itself and its neighbours. It had one of the highest life expectancy rates, up with South Africa.

"These deaths are largely preventable, yet without significant intervention, the situation threatens to develop into a humanitarian crisis of biblical proportions.”

For the likes of Abigail Murewa the choices are stark: be a good girl and starve now; or be a bad girl, sleep around, get a little food and but still die before the end of her 34th year.

Roselyn Godobori is the pseudonym of an IWPR contributor in Zimbabwe.

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