“For almost all my life, my rights have been violated. I had my first experience of the child sex trade at just nine years old. Now, as a Child Rights Ambassador I am fighting to prevent other girls in Zimbabwe from being abused as I was. And I am fighting for my right as a girl to express my opinions!” says Chelsea, 15.
My mother died giving birth to me and my father died one week later. Luckily enough my grandmother and grandfather were able to look after me. But when I was nine years old, both my grandparents became seriously ill with AIDS. Eventually they were so weak that they had to stop working in the fields.
I was hungry almost all the time. Often the only thing we had to eat was tomatoes from our garden. Sometimes a neighbour gave us some cornmeal so that we could make a kind of corn porridge called sadza. When my grandfather died, I was sent home from school because my grandmother and I could no longer afford the school fees.
I was distraught. I loved studying and I knew even then that education was the only way for me to have a better life in the future.
My grandmother asked me to go up to the main road and sell tomatoes to people passing by, just as many other girls from our village did. Every morning I picked tomatoes from our little garden and laid them out nicely on a platter at the side of the road. Then I ran up to every passing car to sell them tomatoes. After a whole day working in the burning hot sun, I had usually earned around 2 US dollars.
One day a truck stopped. I ran over and asked the driver if he wanted to buy some tomatoes. I had noticed that my tomatoes didn’t look as nice as the other girls’, so I wanted to sell mine cheaply so that he would still choose mine. I said he could have the whole platter of tomatoes for 1 dollar. Then the driver said, ‘If you do me a favour I can give you ten dollars instead. What do you say?’ I knew that ten dollars would really help my grandmother and me. We hadn’t eaten for days and my grandmother needed medicine. I hesitated, but then I said yes.
In the truck cab
I thought he wanted me to clean the truck cab so I started wiping the dashboard with a cloth. But then he said, ‘You can stop that. That’s not what I want you to do.’ He showed me a narrow bed at the back of the cab. But I was only nine, I didn’t understand what he wanted me to do. Then he said, ‘Come and sit here on the bed with me.’ And he started touching my legs. I got scared and tried to get out, but he pulled me back down onto the bed.
What he did injured me. Afterwards he threw me a towel and told me to clean myself up. I started to cry. He told me not to be sad, and that this was how all girls earned money. He gave me ten dollars and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this. If other girls find out about it, they’ll all want to come to me and there will be no money left over for you.’ And then he opened the door and said, ‘Don’t forget your tomatoes! Carry on selling your tomatoes as usual, and I’ll come back and stop again soon.’
I was sad. At the same time I thought to myself that this must be how all girls earn money. I also thought about how happy my grandmother would be when I came home with the money.
The next day I was able to buy medicine for my grandmother and food for both of us. I carried on going up to the road to sell tomatoes. And every time the truck driver passed, the same thing happened and I got my ten dollars. That’s what my life was like for a whole year.
One day when I got home my grandmother was lying still in her bed with her eyes closed. I thought she was sleeping. The next day I tried to feed her some cornmeal, but she wouldn’t take any. I thought maybe she just needed to rest. On the third day there were lots of flies around her. When I went out to get a bucket of water to wash her, a neighbour came past. She wanted to check that we were okay. She tried to wake my grandmother but she couldn’t. After a while, the neighbour explained that she was dead.
My worst nightmare had come true. I was just ten years old, and completely alone.
A pastor told me that he felt sorry for me and wanted to take care of me. I was so happy that someone cared. The pastor’s wife and their children welcomed me into their home. They gave me food and a place to live, and I was able to start school again. I didn’t have to go and sell tomatoes at the roadside any more. Or see the truck driver.
For a while everything was good. Then the wife and children went away to visit relatives. It was just me and the pastor left at home. One night he came home late and he was drunk. He asked me where the keys to his bedroom were, because he couldn’t find them. He said I had hidden the keys and so I had to let him sleep in my bed.
He started to touch me. It was just the same as it was with the truck driver. And there was no way I could say no. This was what he expected of me in return for giving me a home, food, the chance to go to school, and some kind of family. This was the price I had to pay. The pastor exploited me for three years.
Child Rights Ambassador
While all this was going on, I and some other girls from school got the chance to go to the capital city, Harare, for an ambassador training course all about girls’ rights, run by the World’s Children’s Prize. We learned that it is wrong for girls to be exploited or sold. We also learned that we have a right to make our voices heard, and that our bodies belong to us and nobody else!
On the training we learned about lots of terrible things that were wrong and were violations of our rights. I thought a lot about the fact that these were things that had been happening to me for most of my life. It hurt so much. I also learned that what the truck driver and the pastor did to me was part of the child sex trade. Those two days in Harare changed my life.
When we got back, we set up Child Rights Clubs where we ambassadors taught other girls the things that we had learned. We sang, we danced, we were happy and we encouraged one another. I felt such joy because what we were doing was incredibly important. At the same time, I realised that I was living in a house where I was being subjected to the very crimes I was teaching people about and warning girls to look out for. That made me sad and confused. I had had enough.
Escape from the pastor
One afternoon when I got home from school, I packed a bag with my clothes, my school uniform and my books. Then I hid the bag in the forest. I went back to the house and cleaned, swept the yard, washed the dishes and made lunch. While I was cooking behind the house the other family members were sitting at the front. After a while I slipped away from the house to get my bag. My heart was in my throat and I was so scared I could hardly move. But in the end I ran as fast as I could to the main road. And I jumped on a bus to Harare.
Once I was sitting on the bus I felt sad because I felt I was letting the other ambassadors down and abandoning our important work with the girls’ club. At the same time, I was so relieved that I might finally be free. The ambassador course had given me the knowledge and courage to leave my old life behind.
Safe village for girls
At the training course they gave us the phone number of Girl Child Network (GCN), an organisation that takes care of girls facing difficult situations. They picked me up when I arrived in Harare, late in the evening. I realised that life was finally going to be good.
Now I live in one of GCN’s safe villages for girls, and GCN have reported the pastor to the police. For the first time in my life, I feel truly safe and secure. I go to school and I’m still a WCP Child Rights Ambassador. I’m planning to continue with that. I want everyone in our whole country to know that girls have rights.
In the future I want to be a doctor and earn lots of money. I’ll use the money to help girls who are having a hard time.
Hard for girls in Zimbabwe
“The situation for girls in Zimbabwe is horrendous. Boys are seen as superior in every area of life. We girls are less valued. We are seen as second-class citizens. That makes me sad and very angry,” says Chelsea, explaining some of the things that are wrong:
• Girls do all the housework. Boys are allowed to play and are sent to school.
• Girls are forced to work much earlier than boys, for example as maids.
• Girls can easily fall victim to the child sex trade.
• Girls as young as twelve are forced into child marriages with older men.
• If parents die, their son inherits everything and their daughter doesn’t get anything.