News that apostolic sects have agreed to join the Zimbabwe Heads of Christian Denominations — the main Christian umbrella body— to help fight incidents of rape and extortion by church leaders is welcome.
This move will go a long way in protecting the girl child who is subject to sexual abuse by church leaders in many apostolic sects that encourage child marriage. Mostly, leaders of these sects are guilty of marrying under-age girls, making them the biggest perpetrators of statutory rape.
Research has shown that in the developing world, one in seven girls are married before their 15th birthday and the culprit-husbands are usually leaders or adult members of religious sects and traditional leaders.
Religious leaders use several tactics to intimidate their young victims with impressionable minds into submission. In most of these sects, fears of being cursed by the “spiritually powerful” sect leaders lead the girls to submit to their sexual whims.
Religious leaders convince their victims that they are ordained by God and because they are God’s proxies on earth, what they say cannot be disputed and this includes marriages and sexual activity.
The concept of the Holy Spirit is also used to intimidate members as leaders claim that what they say goes as doing otherwise is tantamount to disputing what the Holy Spirit says. There are numerous instances where sect leaders have claimed that they were ordered by the Holy Spirit to marry girls as young as eight.
Apart from forcing young girls to marry men old enough to be their grandfathers, cross-generational marriages expose these young ones to reproductive health risks and HIV and Aids. What is more worrisome is that the girls, apart from suffering statutory and marital rape, are totally disempowered as they are forced out of school and consequently, mainstream economic activities.
Surely, these young girls cannot stand up for themselves to demand safe sex from their adult husbands.
What is also worrying about these religion-sanctioned child marriages is that the girls would be both physically and emotionally immature to become wives bearing in mind the demands imposed on individuals by the marriage institution.
Some of these child brides are sadly raped by their “husbands” before their first menstrual cycle.
It is heartening, therefore, to hear that leaders of apostolic sects have agreed to join forces with other church leaders to fight incidents of rape and sexual abuse as this gives hope that child marriages will be eliminated or outlawed from their sects as they not only constitute a criminal offence, but lead to statutory rape.
It is hoped the church leaders will impress it upon their followers that child marriages are as evil as rape. We applaud the step that they have taken and we hope they will assist in bringing culprits of all forms of rape to book.