Poverty, abuse and cultural practices are preventing a third of Zimbabwean girls from attending primary school and 67 percent from attending secondary school, denying them a basic education, according to a recent study which found alarming dropout rates for girls.
''Sexual harassment and abuse by even school teachers and parents, cultural issues, lack of school fees, early marriage, parental commitments and early pregnancies are some of the contributing factors to the dropout by the girl child,'' said the authors of "Because I am a Girl" by Plan International, a nonprofit organisation that works to alleviate child poverty.
Maira Gwati's education ended two years ago, at the age of 14, when her family in rural Guruve, some 160km northeast of Harare, the capital, forced her to marry a 60-year-old man.
''My grandfather killed a woman who had refused to be married to him many years ago and her family wanted a virgin as compensation to appease her spirit. I was chosen and given to an old man in marriage, but he often beat me up and even though I fell pregnant I could not stand the abuse,'' Gwati told IRIN.
She fled to Harare where she found refuge at a shelter for pregnant girls until her daughter was born, but the child died after only six months.
Gwati said she was not a particularly gifted student but was an aspiring athlete who had dreamed of completing her secondary education and becoming the next Marion Jones (a record breaking African-American sprinter). She has no plans to return to school, bur has joined a small athletics club in the capital.
''Many girls out there are victims of the kind of abuse that has made me suffer so much. Most of the girls at the shelter end up as prostitutes, and they do all the bad things you can imagine to earn a dollar. Our future does not promise much, but for me the lack of a source of income will not keep me from becoming a popular runner,'' she said.
Makaitei Tevedza, matron of the home that gave Gwati shelter, told IRIN: ''I have been helping poor and abandoned pregnant girls for more than 10 years, and it seems the number of victims seeking our support is increasing all the time. Most of the girls say they were impregnated by relatives, teachers or lovers, who then chased them away.''
According to the Plan International report, the long distances that children in rural areas have to travel to reach school, and the burden that girl children face because they often have to assume the responsibilities of being head of the household after the death of their parents, are other factors contributing to the high dropout rate for girls.
A 2005 government programme of forced evictions, known as Operation Murambatsvina (Drive out Trash), which uprooted some 700,000 people from urban areas across the country, compounded the difficulties of accessing education for girls from affected households.
Amnesty International, in its report ''Left Behind: The Impact of Zimbabwe's Forced Evictions on the Right to Education'' [ http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/AFR46/019/2011/en/0d50f4e3-9cf6-4122-8cf9-ee6ab533cb3b/afr460192011en.pdf ] released in October 2011, documents the ways in which the evictions disrupted the primary and secondary education of an estimated 222,000 children.
During Murambatsvina many households were forcibly removed to rural areas and transit camps without educational facilities, and in some areas school buildings were demolished. Thousands of livelihoods were destroyed, making school fees an expense that families could no longer afford.
Joyce Rusike's single mother, then a vegetable vendor, was struggling to support her family when she was ejected from her rented room. ''We were resettled at Hopley [a squatter settlement] because we didn't have anywhere else to go. My mother got so affected that she immediately fell ill, and my brothers and I had to stop going to school because we could not afford the fees and bus fare to our old school,'' she told IRIN.
Rusike now sells cigarettes at a nearby long-distance bus terminus during the day and is a commercial sex worker at night, while her siblings spend their days hunting birds or helping passengers with their luggage at the bus terminus.
The Amnesty International report notes that many girls at Hopley became sex workers, entered relationships with older men, or married at a young age after eviction from their homes, and the government's failure to support them to re-enrol in school.
''Operation Murambatsvina inflicted a severe blow to the right to education for the affected population, who were already amongst the poorest and most disadvantaged in Zimbabwe," wrote the authors.
Zimbabwe's education system, once considered a model for other African countries, has been steadily declining over the last decade due to the economic crisis. Many schools lack text books and other supplies.
A Situational Analysis on the Status of Women's and Children's Rights in Zimbabwe: 2005-2010, carried out by the government and the UN, found that almost half of the children did not proceed from primary to secondary school.
The government, in partnership with the international donor community and UN agencies, launched the Education Transition Fund in 2009, with the aim of addressing the shortage of learning materials in schools.
A second phase of the programme was launched this month. According to a statement by UNICEF Representative Dr Peter Salama, this phase "will focus on equity and access to quality education for all children, in particular responding to the gender disparity of students in secondary schools, and giving children not in school an opportunity for a second chance for education".