Time to blow the whistle on child marriages

Girls who marry while young often experience birth complications and are at risk of high maternal and child mortality rates

Girls who marry while young often experience birth complications and are at risk of high maternal and child mortality rates

Ruth Butaumocho Gender Forum

Child marriages are dangerous because they condemn young girls to a vicious cycle of poverty and reduce their opportunities of having a good life in their adulthood.

During one of my field visits in Buhera early this year, I met a girl barely 16, heavily pregnant and expecting her second child from her 41-year-old husband.
Although the young mother did not reveal her age, probably out of embarrassment, I later learnt from her peers that she was married off to a renowned farmer in Chief Nyashanu’s area while she was in Form 2.

She became his third wife.
Villagers I spoke to agreed that it was not anything extraordinary.
They said it was the norm in the area as the majority of girls in the district and neighbouring areas married before their 15th birthday.

The problem of child or forced marriages continues unabated.
This is amid revelations that the practice is growing each day, despite Government efforts to curb it through legislation.

Unlike other social vices such as rape, other forms of sexual abuse, murder and the spread of HIV and Aids, the debate on child marriages has not been as animated and taken to a higher level as has been the debates on other gender issues.

This is because some sections of Zimbabwe do not consider child marriages as a problem that warrants attention.
Far from generating debate anywhere else beyond the corridors of power and among civic societies, the debate has been lukewarm and failed to find takers.

If anything, it is not considered a serious problem because some sections of society in Zimbabwe, particularly among the Johanne Marange apostolic sect and traditional leaders, are heavily embedded in the practice at a time when the Government and other stakeholders are worried about the growing numbers of child marriages.

Just to show that some sections of society stand accused of promoting the practice, a 43-year-old Murehwa man was last week dragged to the courts facing rape charges.

The man had sexual relations with an 11-year-old who later eloped to him.
He allegedly proposed love to the girl, who then was doing Grade Three, a proposal the juvenile turned down.

Realising that what the man was doing was abnormal, the juvenile – out of trust and fear – is said to have told her grandmother, who in turn told her to keep quiet.
He allegedly started having sexual intercourse with the hapless girl.

Later on, the man made arrangements to have the girl elope with him from Mutoko to his Murehwa home.
And yet according to the new Constitution, any person who indulges in sexual intercourse with a girl below the age of 12 is presumed to have raped the minor despite her consent to the act.

They could have been other people within the same community who witnessed this illegal activity but turned a blind eye to it.
That attitude towards the problem of child marriages is quite common, making it practically impossible for the Government and other stakeholders to rein in on the problem.

And the problem is indeed growing if the figures being released are anything to go by.
According to the United Nations, 39 000 girls are married off each day, translating to a staggering 14 million girls each year – which is the population of Zimbabwe. A 2012 report based on data collected by the United Nations Population Fund during the years 2000-2011, Zimbabwe’s prevalence of child marriages was at 31 percent and was among 41 nations with the highest rates of child marriages coming in at number 39.

The continued increase in child marriages in Zimbabwe means that the girl’s education is greatly disturbed; the country will witness an increase in child mortality and more girls will die while giving birth, eroding the gains the country had achieved in that regard.

Child marriages are dangerous because they condemn young girls to  a vicious cycle of poverty and reduce their opportunities of having a good life in their adulthood.
Apart from the social stigma they are likely to face, girls end up in violent marriages because of the power dynamics within those relationships.

They also experience birth complications and the practice has been deemed to cause high maternal and child mortality rates.
Girls who marry while young are particularly at risk of abuse from their partners or their parents or families.

They are consistently more likely to be beaten or threatened by their husbands than girls who marry later.
Often married to much older men, they are likely to believe that a man is sometimes justified in beating his wife than women who marry later.

It has also been observed that child brides suffer emotional pressures from their families and husbands or in-laws. This can limit their ability to make decisions about their own bodies as well as making decisions on their own lives.

It is against this background that Zimbabwe should make concerted efforts to fight the early marriage scourge that is threatening to cripple the welfare of  women in Zimbabwe and the region at large.

Zimbabwean-born Africa Union goodwill ambassador on child marriages Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda recently called on Sadc leaders to formulate policies that will end child marriages as a way of protecting child rights.

But taking a closer look at the issue, formulation of policies alone will not solve the problem of child marriages.
Zimbabwe and the region at large need the buy-in of men to take up the message and run with it.

Because some of the men perpetrate child marriages, as husbands, father-in-laws and brothers who give a hand in marriage, organisations and stakeholders should also focus on them and encourage them to spread the message around.