CHILD marriage is a vice which has been on the global agenda for years and a lot of advocacy has been carried out around the subject, but still all the efforts have not really yielded much results.
BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Over 14 million girls (the bulk of which are child brides) between the ages of 15 and 19 in Africa give birth each year and are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth. Early pregnancy is the second leading cause of death for girls in that same age group.
According to the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), girls who marry between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women are in their early 20s.
“Once married, (a child bride) is more likely to be a victim of domestic violence and suffer health complications associated with early sexual activity and childbearing,” notes ICRW.
Married girls are more likely to be HIV positive or have STIs than unmarried girls because they are often married to older men with more extensive sexual histories, and they lack the education or rights to have any control over their sex lives.
Babies born to adolescent mothers are more likely to be stillborn, premature, underweight and at increased risk of dying in infancy due to the mother’s young age.
As of 2014, more than 700 million women around the world were married before they turned 18 years old, and more than a third of those did so before they were 15.
Child marriage is a huge issue in Zimbabwe which is among other African countries with the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world (31%).
Although technically considered illegal, the gaps within the legislation have done little to stop the cultural practice despite the serious health complications.
The current legislation does not provide protection against child marriage and its associated abuses, which the country is obliged to provide for under the Constitution and its international commitments.
There are growing calls for the Zimbabwean government to align existing laws on marriage to the new Constitution to protect the girl child.
The Customary Marriages Act, which has no specific minimum age, has seen many parents and guardians consenting to marriage of their children.
Under the Marriage Act, girls under 16 can marry while the same Act says boys can only marry at 18. Girls between the ages of 16 and 18 can get married with the consent of their parents or guardians or, if a guardian refuses consent, with the consent of a High Court judge (Section 20).
Recently Prosecutor-General Johannes Tomana touched off a storm when he made “blatant” comments that girls as young as 12 should be listened to by the courts if they choose to get married.
He defended himself saying he had been quoted out of context and that he was merely interpreting the law and not expressing his personal views.
Early this year, Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support (Roots) facilitated a ground-breaking case in which two former child brides took the government to the Constitutional Court (ConCourt) for not declaring child marriage illegal and unconstitutional.
In their statements to the ConCourt, Ruvimbo Tsopodzi and Loveness Mudzuru, now 19 and 20 respectively, said Zimbabwe’s Marriage Act was discriminatory because it set the minimum age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys.
“The question that we should be asking ourselves is what we are doing about this social scourge. What is the church, society doing to put a plug to this once and for all?” said the communications manager for Plan International- Zimbabwe, Angela Machonesa.
She said the issue was almost on every agenda on human rights but this has to translate into action and projects that ensure the girl child is protected.
“Society should not perpetuate this terrible vice by carrying out practices that sort of prepare girls for marriage when they are still too young and in school,” she said.
One of the many negative facets of child marriage is that it has widened the gender gap in education, with more boys managing to complete their studies than their female counterparts.
The situation is worse in the rural and marginalised communities where access to information is limited.
“We have seen that child marriage is very rampant in mining and farming communities (makomboni) where poverty is the major key driver,” said Beatrice Savadye, director of Roots.
Their consultations also revealed that young girls were coerced into marriage by older men who have money from mining activities.
“Girls from these communities also marry early as they lack exposure and role models to emulate,” Savadye said.
According to a 2011 report by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency, women aged 20-24 years and living in rural areas were about twice as likely to be married or get into such unions before the age of 18 years compared to their urban counterparts.
Early this year traditional leaders from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique converged in Lusaka to find lasting solutions to child marriage.
The chiefs noted that certain traditional practices, poverty and lack of political will were the main drivers of the practice.
During the conference Chief Mtshane from Matabeleland in Zimbabwe, who is also the deputy president of the Chiefs’ Council, said many parents married off their young daughters because of lack of access to information on the harmful effects of child marriage.
“A lot of girls have risked their lives during childbirth because of their tender ages, but it is lack knowledge of such dangers to their daughters that parents were still marrying off their daughters,” he said.
The many victims of this vice have missed out on opportunities to better themselves by attaining an education and emancipating themselves from their male counterparts who hold them “hostage” as they remain the source of income.
In April this year, 13-year-old Duli Hembrom from Jamshedpur, India, wrote a heartbreaking letter to her principal, begging the school to intervene and stop the wedding her father had arranged for her.
Her letter was re- read on most leading TV networks like Al Jazeera and her story resonated with those of millions of other girls in the same situation.
“My parents have fixed my wedding on April 22. I do not want to get married,” Duli pleaded.
“I took an oath at the time of admission that I will not get married before I turn 18. I do not wish to get married early,” the letter read.
However her father told the Hindustan Times that he would not change his mind, as it was too difficult to marry off “a grown-up girl”.