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Like Wendy*, many girls from Zimbabwe are forced to drop out of school and become invisible to their government. As a result they are at higher risk of abuse and being forced into prostitution.

Plan International’s report Counting the Invisible shows that girls who drop out of school in Zimbabwe often do not figure in official statistics and therefore disappear from official records. This means their government is less inclined and less able to support them.

Wendy, 16, from the outskirts of Harare, is the daughter of a sex worker. At the age of 13 she was raped by her mother’s partner. Forced to drop out of school because she was unable to pay for her school fees, she followed her mother into sex work.

Learn more about Counting the Invisible For 3 years, Wendy regularly went to a nearby mobile phone booster, a point known locally where men can meet prostitutes. She would sleep with several men each night, earning around $2 each time.

Invisible girls at risk

Girls who work as prostitutes risk being physically abused, becoming pregnant and getting sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. “Sometimes they would beat me and refuse to pay,” says Wendy.

the invisibility of these girls is reinforced by poverty, rural isolation and lack of economic opportunity

“It is an impossible situation for girls in the region,” says Lennart Reinius, Plan International Zimbabwe Country Director. “With no way of paying school fees, no jobs and no way of putting food on the table, what options do they have? Girls like Wendy are often invisible to decision-makers which makes helping them even more difficult.

“Many families think girls can only be mothers or servants, not doctors or businesswomen. This is a huge problem and it is fuelling these issues. In addition, the invisibility of these girls is reinforced by a multitude of factors such as poverty, rural isolation and lack of economic opportunity. We must assist girls and women to empower themselves so their realities become visible and so they can learn, lead, decide and thrive.”

Counting the Invisible states that until every girl is counted and the realities of their lives are revealed, we cannot achieve true gender equality or meet the promises made in the Global Goals.

Back at school

Wendy is now back at school thanks to a project run by Plan International Zimbabwe. “We want to give these girls a second chance and make them realise that they have more options than selling their bodies or getting married,” says Reinius.

Although Wendy has escaped sex work, her mother and friends are still selling their bodies. “My friends outside of school are involved in prostitution,” she says. “They envy me because I go to school. I am happy I have left sex work. I will not go back.”

Learn more about Counting the Invisible

*Name changed to protect identity