What happens when a child loses both parents and has to suddenly become a parent to their younger siblings? Who steps in when tragedy interrupts the dreams of a young child? Sadly, oftentimes the answer is no one.
A child-headed family is one where a minor becomes the head of the household.
The high mortality rate in Zimbabwe has led to many child-headed families. The eldest girl usually becomes “the mother” and takes the responsibility of seeing to it that her siblings are fed and educated.
Some girls have turned to sex work in order to put food on the table for their siblings.
Sarudzai (not her real name) had a difficult childhood. Her father passing away when she was two, and her mother, when she was 11. Her sister took on the burden of taking care of them. Unfortunately, her sister also passed on and Sarudzai was left to care of her younger sibling and her sisters’ children at the age of 15. She narrates her ordeal to Ivy.
Ivy: Tell me about your childhood.
Sarudzai: I was born (in) 1994, I am the fourth born in a family of five. Unfortunately, my father passed away in 1996 and my mum had to take care of us. We had to move to Mhondoro, my mother’s hometown. It wasn’t easy for her as she was unemployed. She had to make petticoats and sell maize meal at the farms for us to survive. In 2005, she succumbed to a heart problem and we became orphans. None of my mother’s relatives agreed to take care of us and they left us all alone. We had to move to Chegutu to live with our sister who was married with one child. Life was not easy for her as her husband was unemployed and he had to do odd jobs including gold digging for us to have something to eat. As life was not easy and poverty had the best of us. My other sister eloped.
My older sister who was taking care of us then fell pregnant and when she was two months (along), her husband was murdered while working at a farm in Chegutu. It was so depressing. Life only became harder. As if that (were) not enough, my sister’s blood pressure rose and she passed away as she gave birth to her second child. It was traumatizing.
Ivy: Did your sister’s in-laws help in any way?
Sarudzai: No one offered to help us. As soon as my sister was buried, all the relatives dispersed. I was left to take care of my younger sister and my sister’s children – the youngest being 4 days old.
Ivy: Did you drop out of school because of this?
Sarudzai: No, I didn’t drop out of school. I was Form 3 (Grade 11) then and luckily we had hot-seating at school. So I would go to school in the morning and exchange with my sister who would bring the baby to school before her lessons. (Then) I would take him home from 1 p.m.
Ivy: How did you source food for the family?
Sarudzai: I would go and harvest wheat from the fields and oranges from (farms) which I would sell in order to buy food. The Roman Catholic Church, however, contributed to our welfare by paying our school fees and buying milk for my sister’s baby.
Ivy: Usually girls in your situation end up being sex workers in order to get money for food and the welfare of the family. How did you manage to escape from such a situation?
Sarudzai: Men in my village would come asking me to sleep with them in exchange for money. They would knock on the door in the evenings pleading with me. Some of which were married men. I never accepted their offer and I turned them down. I told myself that my tomorrow must be better than my today, and I kept on praying to God to help me, and God did help me. I never stopped going to church.
Ivy: Did you manage to complete your studies?
Sarudzai: Yes I did. I wrote my ‘O’ levels (high school exams) and passed. I proceeded to ‘A’ level, wrote the examinations and again, I passed. I am now a holder of a diploma in hotel and catering. I am not yet married and I am in no hurry to do so. The man who will marry me should love my sister’s children first. I will always be there for them. I am also glad to say my younger sister managed to get a scholarship and she is now studying in Australia.
Ivy: Many girls are in the same situation. What’s your advice to them?
Sarudzai: Never give up in life. God has big plans for you. No matter what predicament you face, stay focused on the goal. Just keep praising the Lord and you will be assured of a better tomorrow.