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Teen’s death draws attention to child marriages in Zimbabwe

September 08, 2021
topic:Child rights
tags:#Zimbabwe, #child marriage, #women's rights, #sexual abuse
by:Cyril Zenda
The death of Anna Machaya (15) during childbirth at an apostolic church shrine in the Bocha area of eastern Zimbabwe has drawn global attention to an African mega church that allows elderly men to marry girls as young as nine years old.

Machaya died on July 15 at a Johane Marange Apostolic Church shrine. Her death, however, became known only three weeks later, and caused a global outcry that prompted the government to take action. 

Investigations revealed that Machaya was buried at the church’s shrine barely two hours after her death, in accordance with the sect’s doctrine. Despite suffering birth complications for days, Machaya was not taken to the hospital because the church’s doctrine is opposed to modern medicine (including vaccines) and education.

“This is a clear case of gender-based violence, child sexual abuse and violation of the rights of the girl child,” said Women Affairs Minister, Sithembiso Nyoni. “Culture and religion cannot be used to justify such practices, which destroy lives of girl children […] denying them the right to education, healthcare and well-being, throwing the girls into vicious circles of poverty.” 

Several online petitions demanding justice for Machaya prompted the police and the Zimbabwe Gender Commission to investigate the death. The investigation has lead to the arrest of Hatirarami Momberume, the 26-year old 'husband' of the deceased teenager, on charges of rape arising from having sexual intercourse with a minor. Momberume faces upto ten years in jail.

“It is rape because I don’t see a 14-year old giving in to sexual consent and also giving in to marriage,” Nyoni said. “A 14-year (old) is minor who should be taken care of by the church - by the adults - not to be sexually abused.”

While practices of child marriages are prevalent in most parts of Africa, largely due to cultural traditions, in Zimbabwe this trend is especially rife among some indigenous apostolic churches - an evangelical group that fuses Christian beliefs with traditional African cultures. 

Members of the apostolic sect justify this practice as a pre-emptive measure to “protect” the girls from falling into permanent impurity that comes with indulging in pre-marital sex.

Apostolic Churches Spread across Africa

The Johane Marange Apostolic Church - named after its founder - was established in Zimbabwe in the 1930s, and has since spread its wings throughout East and southern Africa where it commands a following hat runs into millions.

This apostolic sect is known for its encouragement of polygamous marriages, and it is into these marriages that old men - who claim to be following instructions from God - bring young girls as child brides.

Most of the sect’s doctrines are not based on the Bible, but on what the leadership claims to be instructions from the Holy Spirit and these doctrines have constantly put it into direct collision with the government and human rights groups.

U.N. Deeply Concerned

The United Nations in Zimbabwe condemned the continued culture of child marriages saying it “notes with deep concern and condemns strongly” the circumstances leading to Machaya’s death.

“Sadly, disturbing reports of the sexual violation of under-age girls, including forced child marriages continue to surface and indeed this is another sad case,” the U.N. said in a statement.

The global body, which has 25 agencies operating in the southern African nation, highlighted that one in three girls in Zimbabwe was likely to be married before reaching the age of 18.

Sexual Abuse Inquiry Demanded

Church leaders going under the banner of the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations (ZHOCD) have demanded that an independent national inquiry be made into cases of sexual abuse of women and girls, which are said to be prevalent in churches.

“The case brings to the fore the vulnerability of children at the hands of religion and culture,” said a statement from ZHOCD, which groups various Christian religious forums that include the Zimbabwe Council of Churches, the Zimbabwe Catholic Bishops Conference and the Evangelical Fellowship of Zimbabwe.

“It is now common knowledge that women and girls remain vulnerable before religious and other powerful figures whom they expect to provide them with support especially in times of social, spiritual, and economic need.” 

Attempts To Gag The Family

Efforts to talk to the secretive leaders of the secretive apostolic church were unrewarding amid indications that since the case of Machaya leaked there have been attempts to 'gag' her family.

Human Rights Watch southern Africa director, Dewa Mavhinga said that the family was under pressure from the church’s leadership.

“I spoke to one of Anna’s distraught relatives, who said the family is under pressure from the church not to talk about the case. They also said the church was planning to give a 9-year-old girl as Anna’s replacement to her 'husband'. The family is demanding justice for Anna.”

These spirited efforts to conceal the death resulted in the deceased being wrongly identified as Memory Machaya at first as her parents - who are devoted members of the sect - tried to forestall the criminal investigations by providing false information. The parents are now also facing criminal charges for their actions.

A watershed 2016 Constitutional Court decision declared child marriages unconstitutional in Zimbabwe and set 18 as the minimum marriage age for girls and boys, without exceptions. 

A draft Bill to reform marriages is currently under debate in Parliament. The bill seeks to align all the existing marriage laws - including the provision that outlaws child marriages - to the Constitution. 

This is the first time since the landmark ruling that someone has been charged for marrying a minor.

Multi-Pronged Approach Suggested

A report prepared by the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) in May this year, after conducting a series of community meetings in the Bocha area in search of solutions to this prevalent problem, concluded that the crisis of child marriage is complex and therefore requires a multi-pronged approach.

“Members of the indigenous apostolic church reportedly encourage girls as young as ten to marry much older men for 'spiritual guidance'," the ZLHR noted. “Men in this church are reportedly entitled to marry girls to shield them from pre-marital sex, with girls becoming second or third wives in polygamous marriages.”

Nyaradzo Mashayamombe, the executive director of Tag A Life International Trust (Ta-LI) - an advocacy organisation that promotes girls’ rights and women empowerment in Zimbabwe - told FairPlanet that the case shows that a lot of work still needs to be done to bring child marriages to an end.

“As we have seen the issue of abuse of girls is greatly embedded in tradition and religion, there are two key issues that are heart-breaking for me […] [that] the government allows these apostolic shrines to keep operating and how the family can be part and parcel of the plot to conceal the age of their daughter, lying to cover up that heinous crime and even offer another child barely nine years old,” Mashayamombe said.

Political Connections Feared

Because President Emmerson Mnangagwa and his predecessor, the late Robert Mugabe, have always maintained very close ties with the Johanne Marange church (both of them being frequent visitors to its shrine where 'prophesies' about their political fortunes would be given) there are fears that this relationship could compromise the investigations.

The ZHOCD church leaders shared these concerns. “We are concerned that so many cases involving popular religious men accused of abusing women and girls have not resulted in a transparent investigation trail and successful prosecutions.”

Exhumations Demanded

The ZHOCD added that due to the secret nature of the deaths at Johanne Marange shrines, the real number of women and girls who are losing their lives in childbirth would never be known.

Mashayamombe suggested that forensic investigations be carried out at these apostolic shrines to expose other cases that have been concealed in the past.

“Justice will only be saved when these shrines are shut down […] Marange has been notorious for decades, we need to exhume the bodies and reveal how many of our girls have died and been buried there,” she said.

Image by Amaury Gutierrez

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Embed from Getty Images
Apostolic Christians conduct a religious service in a piece of open land.
© Belal Khaled/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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