This article is part of a series produced for Religion News Service’s parent organization Religion News Foundation with support from the Arcus Foundation and Heinrich Böll Stiftung Southern Africa. It emerged from a November 2016 journalism training workshop in Cape Town, South Africa.
HARARE, Zimbabwe—”If ever I’m spotted walking into a beer hall to buy a pack of Durex condoms, my father will beat me with a rubber belt, my teachers would banish me from the classroom, our church pastor will expel me from the Sunday choir band.”
Nancy, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, is a 17-year-old biology student at a Baptist-run school in Chimanimani, a mostly rural part of eastern Zimbabwe.
“Condoms are a banned word in our church youth seminars,” she said. “On rare occasions our church pastor speaks, he shouts, ‘condoms are full of holes, beware! Condoms stick inside women! Abortion is Satan’s invention!”
Between February and September 2016, Nancy says 10 of her classmates became pregnant and were kicked out of school despite directives from the Zimbabwe Education Ministry and constitutional court mandating that pregnant girls must not be excluded from finishing high school.
“I know for sure religious stigma towards condoms put girls in harm here,” Nancy said of her classmates.
Rural eastern Zimbabwe, a bastion of church authority, is witnessing the country’s fastest growing rate of teenage pregnancies.
According to Zimbabwe’s Demographic Health Survey, the fertility rate among regional teenage girls between the ages of 15 and 19 increased from 99 per 1,000 to 115 per 1,000 between 2005 and 2015.
Observers and some experts attribute the rate rise to church restrictions and stigma around condoms and other forms of contraception.
With Zimbabwe’s government deep in debt, churches play a critical role in providing free or subsidized sexual health clinics, maternity homes, surgeries and schools in this region.
“And churches strictly discourage the debate on condoms within their assemblies,” said Bishop Fani Moyo, a sociologist and founder of The Progressive Churches Sexual Health Forum of Zimbabwe.
“It is seen as a profanity for Sunday school girls to introduce a sermon on condoms publicly.”
Authorities take a more relaxed view. “Parents are free to drop in condoms when they pack food and books in their children’s schoolbags,” Zimbabwe’s education minister Lazarus Dokora said.
At Rusitu Mission Hospital, a large institution run by United Baptists Church in Zimbabwe, nurses motion patients to participate in morning prayer sessions before giving out medication.
“If you ask for condoms when you get into a relationship, church nurses will report you to the church school principal. A beating follows. We girls endure sex without protection,” Nancy said.
Many businesses and tribal courts in the region also restrict the distribution of condoms to teenage girls.
“It is an offense punishable by a fine of two goats if a schoolgirl is seen buying condoms in a beer tavern in my village,” said Sam Chirandu, a tribal village head in east Zimbabwe. “School girls mustn’t do sex before marriage. It is against our social values.”
Unlike in neighboring South Africa where condoms are widely available, often for free, in rural Zimbabwe they are almost hidden.
“For fear of stigma and beating, I have to cleverly send my 18-year-old boyfriend to buy us condoms from supermarkets, and hope the pastor or his parents don’t see him with them. Each pack costs $1. The price is too much for teenage girls,” Nancy said.
Rural east Zimbabwe is home to the Johane Marine Apostolic Church denomination, a strictly Africanist church sect that draws tens of thousands of followers and is wildly popular among Zimbabwe’s influential government ministers, security chiefs and diplomats.
The denomination is famous for its promotion of polygamy and child marriage and for its fiery dislike of condoms and other forms of contraception.
In the district where this church thrives, the majority of school girls, some as young as 10, have been married to older men from their church.
“Most marriages are arranged between adult church men and underage girls. Request for condoms can result in a teenage bride being divorced harshly,” said Edson Tsvakai, a community health project coordinator at The Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe-Africa (UDA-CIZA).
Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Education and Culture says only one-third of the 10,000 local girls who enroll in high school graduate after four years.
Tsvakai pins the high dropout rate on “runaway teenage pregnancies.”
“The police are the biggest let down in early forced child marriages and pregnancies, as they have continued to turn a blind eye to these religious crimes,” he said. “Prosecutions die down quickly. Church sect leaders are secretive, and in high favor with political elites.”
The country’s Domestic Violence Act prohibits marriage under the age of 16 for both girls and boys, but enforcement is weak in rural districts where poverty incentivizes underreporting.
Noah Pashapa, a bishop of the Pentecostals Liberty Churches International in Harare and one of Zimbabwe’s most famous preachers, holds a pragmatic view on contraception.
“Condoms are a necessary evil. They save lives and marriages,” he said.
Pashapa keeps condoms in his office for needy couples and sexually active youth. He says Zimbabwe’s HIV/AIDS crisis, which contributed to 29,000 deaths in 2015 according to UNAIDS, is slowly breaking down the Church’s high moral ground on sexual abstinence among youths.
He would like to see a future in which “condoms should be distributed in churches – accompanied by information promoting abstinence and informed choices among the youth.”
Ray Mwareya is a journalist based in Zimbabwe.