LIKE many African girls, she did not grow up with a silver spoon in her mouth. She endured many difficulties during her childhood on her way to stardom.
SPECIAL REPORT BY VENERANDA LANGA
That is African Union (AU) goodwill ambassador for child marriage and human rights lawyer and activist Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda for you.
She says she was born during the Rhodesian era when the liberation war was heating up.
Dressed in African attire complete with a head scarf (doek) – as she often does – Gumbonzvanda painfully told her story to a delegation of women gathered at a Harare hotel during a discussion organised by Plan International (Zimbabwe).
She looked as though she would shed a tear as she spoke of how some people out there in the remote countryside of Zimbabwe had nothing, and how as discussions about putting an end to early child marriages were going on at hotels, some girl somewhere was being raped.
Gumbonzvanda, who is set to address the Sadc People’s Summit in Bulawayo to discuss how to end early child marriage, said the meeting in Harare was her first public meeting in Africa since she was appointed AU goodwill ambassador for child marriage.
She then asked everyone present to observe a minute of silence in remembrance of the suffering encountered by millions of young girls forced into early marriages.
“There are some people out there who have nothing, and even as we speak right now there may be a little girl who was raped last night and it was called ‘marriage’,” Gumbonzvanda said as a way of introduction.
“I was born in Murehwa during the war – the last child in a big family. There is poverty which you feel and which you see, but even if we grew up in poverty my parents said it should not take away the dignity within us and ambitions.
“I came to Harare when I was already a big girl with large breasts and it was embarrassing. I had my first nightdress when I was at university. Our father died when I was young, and my mother used to talk about her experiences of being taken out of school in 1941 when she was in Grade Three in order to marry my father.
However, she always wanted her daughters to go to school. The war situation created vulnerability for girls and schools were closed. There were male guerillas coming from the front and their coming also swept off girls from the village. I am sharing my family and personal experiences just to say this issue of early child marriages is not theory.”
Gumbonzvanda said she somewhat managed to attain higher education until she qualified as a lawyer and later spent 10 years of service at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) where she served as regional director.
Apart from being AU goodwill ambassador for child marriages she also leads the World YWCA which has affiliates in 120 countries as chief executive officer, and has worked as a human rights officer with Unicef in Liberia and Zimbabwe. She is also a published writer and poet.
She said African women found themselves “licking a spoon” around poverty and hence the need to address poverty among women and girls in Africa which was one of the underlying causes forcing girls into early child marriages.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE LEADERSHIP ROLE
According to Gumbonzvanda, although Zimbabwe had assumed chairmanship of Sadc, it did not mean it was President Robert Mugabe only who had taken over the leadership, but it was the whole country which was the chair.
“It means as the chairing country we should also look at how we can take part in terms of commitment to end early child marriages. Zimbabwe should be pivotal in looking at what kind of messages and issues should be brought to the 34th Sadc Heads of State Summit. We want to take the lead in Sadc because it is the people of that country which is chairing who should play a leading role in dealing with these issues so that we can go to the appropriate institutions and demand they push these issues forward,” she said.
Gumbonzvanda said Africa was the richest continent in the world in terms of natural resources, yet it was bedeviled by issues of poverty, and dubious cultural and religious practices that led to abuse of vulnerable children who ended up into early child marriages.
EARLY CHILD MARRIAGES ON THE RISE
Current statistics on early child marriages reveal that each year 14 million girls were married off young while 39 000 girls were married off on a daily basis globally.
“Imagine the whole of Zimbabwe getting married off in a year? According to United Nations data for Zimbabwe, we have 31% of women who entered into early child marriages and this translates to that every one in four (1:4) persons has experienced early child marriage. It is a silent crisis and over the years the African Union has signed different protocols and treaties, but there is no implementation,” she added.
“There was disconnect between what policy makers were saying and what was happening in the community and the AU had to come up with this global campaign against child marriages. We need all 54 countries in Africa to come up with plans and serious action to end early child marriages. We need to up-root and address the issue, as well as to arrange programmes for young girls already in relationships and marriages. There is need for national strategies which deal with prevention, protection and empowerment of girls.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT POWER AND MONEY
Gumbonzvanda said early child marriages were also about power and money – where older men took advantage of, and pried on younger girls denying them a chance to grow.
“What do they want from the little girl? Instead of continuing to nurture their relationship with their old wives they want the little girls and as a result they also deny the young men a chance to date the young girls. We need to define masculinity and socialism which tells boys that if they were to be men they should have slept with a girl. We have to send a clear message to both boys and girls to make good decisions about their future, to understand issues of gender equality and also to ensure they understand that marriage is a relationship and not an escape route out of poverty.”
Although globally they call it “early child marriage”, some people felt that these words were too soft to the extent they almost sanitised the practice, which they felt was tantamount to a criminal act of rape of a minor.
Annah Colletta Phenduka of the Zimbabwe Aids Network said she was not comfortable about the words “early child marriage”.
“Are we not sanitising an evil social act? I feel that the words ‘early child marriage’ makes it sound as if it is acceptable,” Phenduka said.
THE ISSUE OF CULTURE MUST BE ADDRESSED
As part of the strategies to combat early child marriages Gumbonzvanda suggested a need for a strong continental position that addressed the issue of culture, abuse of girl children under the guise of religious and cultural practices and the need to reject the notion that cultural and religious practices justified early child marriages.
She said there was need for a proper system of research, monitoring and evaluation of incidences of early child marriages in order to have up to date statistics and to enable institutions trying to deal with the issue to have requisite information.
“It is not enough to make speeches and engage in rhetoric about early child marriages if we are not going to see things changing. We need to track if girls are dropping out of school and the rate of teenage pregnancies and child marriages. Mostly, people do not talk about how one got pregnant, but who got them pregnant and then the child is chased away from home and ordered to go and marry the person,” Gumbonzvanda said.
“There is also need for a lot of engagement with the media. We need to tell stories, not only from a perspective of what is wrong, but how things should be changed. Africa should also reclaim its dignity because always the African story is about poor, sad and hungry Africans, who always fight, cannot co-exist and who have no tolerance of different perspectives. We need capacity building and opportunities and that is why we say our girls need opportunities and not just to raise awareness.”
CRIMINALISE CHILD MARRIAGE
Gumbonzvanda said it was imperative to harmonise pieces of legislation that dealt with issues of marriage and sexual offenses to ensure they were in tandem with each other and adequately criminalised early child marriages.
“Issues of sexual violence are very much associated with power and class. When the girls say I need to get married to get out of poverty they are looking for someone with means. We should be able to continue to demand justice when there is a violation of human rights. Nobody should be protected even if they are rich or are politicians. I call on the Minister of Justice, the Zimbabwe Republic Police Commissioner, the Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and other law enforcement agents to ensure there are arrests of perpetrators and that they do proper investigations on such cases. We also need to protect the victim so that during trial she is not the one who is victimised to the extent she ends up being the one on trial”
She said there were huge health consequences if girls entered into early childhood marriages.
“This includes caring for the baby and it is also sexual violence. When girls enter into inter-generational marriages they cannot negotiate sex in that marriage because of power relationships. They may get sexually transmitted diseases and cannot negotiate for use of condoms in a polygamous relationship.
There are other health issues such as lack of access to maternal health, tearing off of bodily tissues. I have seen a lot of depression and trauma. Some girls are also beaten up by these old men,” Gumbonzvanda said.
SERIOUS COMMITMENT NEEDED
Development consultant Fransesca Mandeya said it was imperative for the Sadc Heads of State to have serious political will to end child marriages.
“We want to see the crafting of laws that show that the Sadc Heads of State are serious about ending child marriage.”
Judith Chiyangwa, an activist said there was need for commitment by law enforcement agents to deal with early child marriages.
She felt that most of these institutions were ill equipped and required extensive training to deal with the victims of early child marriages and the perpetrators.
Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children director Taylor Nyanhete said there was need to have a Sadc protocol on children signed by member states in order to show their commitment in dealing with child marriages.
“We should also deal with children who do not have birth certificates. The Zimbabwe Birth Registration Act allows women to register children without consulting the men. We want women to understand that they are allowed to do that and government allows it. But, government also needs to engage men and ensure they should understand that when they sire a child, they should ensure they have identity despite the differences they have with the mothers in order to protect children,” Nyanhete said.
RAISE AWARENESS IN SCHOOLS
Issues of introducing topics of early child marriages in the school curriculum were also raised, as well as the need for Zimbabwean authors and journalists to come up with books and newspaper articles that seek to address issues of early child marriages.
Others felt that selling of sex in newspaper adverts and stories increased the perceptions that girls and women were sexual beings who needed to please men only.