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Who should tackle child marriages in Zimbabwe?

June 13, 2022
topics: Women's rights
by: Tendayi Madhomu
located in: Zimbabwe
tags: child marriage, poverty, women's rights, Zimbabwe

Child marriages remain prevalent in Zimbabwe despite being outlawed. But who should bear responsibility?

In March 2022, Zimbabwe passed the long-awaited Marriage Bill, which outlaws child marriages in the country - a development that was widely celebrated as a victory. 

Some lawmakers, however, hinted that the practice persists. Member of Parliament Ruth Labode told the media that factors promoting child marriages, including gender inequality, poverty, social norms and insecurity are still present, and that relevant key players have to return to the drawing board to strategise enforcement methods. 

As per Zimbabwe’s National Statistics Agency (Zimstat), 33.7 percent of girls under the age of 18 in the country are married - which amounts to one in three girls under 18, while only 2 percent of boys get married before reaching the age of 18.

According to UNICEF, Zimbabwe ranks among the 20 African nations in which child marriages are most prevalent.

Approached for comments, religious and civil society leaders said that despite the passing of the law against child marriages, measures still need to be taken to ensure protection of the female minor.

Zimbabwean cleric Bishop Ancelimo Magaya told FairPlanet that the new law needs to be enforced without any fear or favour. "The law just remains a law as long as  it is not enforced," he said.

"Whether it is religious leaders, politicians or members of parliament who indulge with girls under the age of 18 - they should be prosecuted, named and shamed. If it is unlawful to marry a girl under 18; it means you cannot sleep with a girl under-age, it is against our values of unhu, listed in the national constitution."

Increased risk around mining communities

Evidently, the exploitation of young girls in small mining communities in the outskirts of Bulawayo, Zimbabwe’s second-largest city, is high, with errant miners impregnating teenagers. In some cases, young girls in the mining areas of Esigodini and Bubi have been married off to illegal miners by poverty-stricken parents. Some cases of sexual abuse or impregnation of minors have been concealed as parents tend to benefit from the perpetrator.

Margaret Moyo, treasurer of the community residents’ association, said that illegal miners have caused havoc in Esigodini’s Habane township, with several reports of sexual abuse of girls reported in the area. Moyo added that the area has been infiltrated by amagweja (illegal miners) - unemployed men who have relocated in great numbers to Esigodini for gold.  

Girls are sexually abused in bushy areas on their way from school, while some voluntarily indulge in sex with the miners who lure them with money.

"Most of the miners are renting accommodation in the township and they have caused disorder in the community. They live in groups of mostly seven or eight. The area has become unsafe, hardly a week passes without a report of a rape case," she said.

"Tomorrow [Saturday] our community is embarking on a program to clear all the bushy areas to combat instances of abuse. The police and the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) have given us the go-ahead. Even older women are not safe, either during the day or at night."

Moyo said that young pregnant girls have been spotted repeatedly at a communal borehole in the nearby eMlanjeni area, an emerging township, as the mining town continues to expand. 

"The girls are young teenagers who have entered into marriage with these miners. It seems some of them come from other areas of the country as they do not speak our local language," explained Moyo.

The case of Anna Machaya

Zimbabwe’s religious sector has also presented its share of burdens on girls, with some sects like the Apostolic church condoning early child marriages.

Last year, the case of Anna Machaya, a 15-year-old girl who was reportedly forced to abandon school in order to get married, spotlighted the perpetual exploitation of minors in the country.

The teenager from the Johane Marange Apostolic sect had died while giving birth at a shrine - a development that caused outrage among activists and advocates of girls’ rights in Zimbabwe.

Local police arrested the teenager’s 26-year-old husband, Hatirarami Momberume, on charges of murder and child rape. Machaya’s parents were also arrested and found guilty of lying about Anna’s age and pledging another one of their daughters to Momberume.

Tackling the root-cause of child marriages

Samkeliso Tshuma, director of The Girls Table, a Zimbabwe-based organisation advocating for the rights of girls, said that the root cause of child marriages needs to be addressed. “Even if the girl child living in a community that allows child marriages wants to attend school, it won’t make a difference because the parents will take the daughter to a man even for a few dollars because of poverty. Unless we address poverty and the socio-economic issues that the parents are facing then we are not doing anything,” she told FairPlanet.

"Once parents are able to provide for their families, there is no need for them to be selling off their daughters to any highest bidder," she added. "Girls have been educated about sexual rights, but parents also need to be educated on upholding the rights of girls. Girls are as important as the boy child, they are not objects. Let’s teach these parents that a girl is also human, that she also has rights."

Tshuma reiterated that offenders, regardless of status, should not be granted any special treatment as child marriages are a form of abuse. "If the law is not enforced, we will keep moving in circles and nothing will change. Anyone who marries a child underage should be arrested, there should be no special treatment. Child marriages are a form of abuse, an escape route of some parents out of poverty, but at the expense of young girls," she stated.

Sinqobile Nyathi, founder and director of the Betterman Foundation, said that ommunity leaders in rural and peri-urban areas in Zimbabwe have a significant role to play when it comes to the emancipation of girls.

"Any measures that can be taken to protect girls, especially in peri-urban areas and rural areas, need a huge involvement of the community and key community people like headsmen, chiefs and other leaders so that if there is a family that is allowing abuse of these girls - they are brought to book," she told FairPlanet.

"Child marriages are a form of abuse, an escape route of some parents out of poverty, but at the expense of young girls."

Nyathi also echoed Tshuma’s statement that economic hardship is a root cause of child marriages, adding that young girls need to be occupied with projects, away from older men.

"There is a need to educate the girl and the community at large on the challenges brought about by child marriages and the fact that it is grossly illegal and attracts jail sentences to perpetrators. The reporting structures need to be friendly, easily accessible and swift in handling such cases to make it very convenient and accessible for the girl-child to report."

Image by Amevi Wisdom.

Article written by:
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Tendayi Madhomu
Author
Zimbabwe
In Zimbabwe, 33.7 percent of girls under the age of 18 are married.
© Christian Ender
The religious sector has also presented its share of burdens on girls, with some sects condoning early child marriages.
© Belal Khaled/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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