Poverty and lack of education coupled with gender inequalities are the main drivers of child marriages in Zimbabwe, a Unicef official has said.
By Aaron Ufumeli
Speaking at a three-day conference on child rights held in Harare this week, Unicef chief of social policy Samson Muradzikwa blamed child marriages on poverty.
“People are poor and they are selling off their girls. The other reasons are lack of education, gender inequalities, marriage laws and harmful cultural and religion practices,” he said.
Muradzikwa said child marriages caused early pregnancy, adding the maternal mortality rates showed that 20% of mothers who died while giving birth in Zimbabwe were in the 15 to 19 age group.
“Zimbabwe has 400 000 births per year, which means that if we want to reduce the maternal mortality, which is at 614 per 100 000 live births, that translates to 3 000 mothers die every year while giving birth,” he said.
“So by delaying pregnancy, you reduce mortality. According to statistics, in Sub-Sahara Africa, 41% of girls are getting married before the age of 18 years, while in Zimbabwe, one in three girls are married before the age of 18.”
In Zimbabwe, the under-five mortality rate for teenage mothers is 78 per 1 000 live births. Once girls marry, the pressure to have more children mounts.
Muradzikwa said there was need to deal with challenges faced by the health delivery system to reduce maternal mortality.
He said delaying or reducing child pregnancy and child marriage would also see the reduction of maternal mortality by 20% .
A teenage girl in the rural area is more likely to be exposed to the risk of pregnancy compared to her urban counterpart.
Teenage pregnancies and early marriages are prevalent in poor families compared to those in wealthy communities, according to experts.
There is a high risk of contracting HIV when girls are forced into child marriage as they are unable to negotiate for safer sex.
Experts said contrary to the widely-held belief that early child pregnancies or marriages were mainly in the apostolic sects, statistics have proven that other groups of religions and those in traditional religion or no religion have had their fair share of the early marriages.
Beatrice Savadye, director of Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support, said child pregnancies were a major concern.
She said young girls were at risk of contracting HIV because they are not able to negotiate for safer sex.
“Due to the increased poverty at household level in rural, farming, mining and peri-urban areas, you find that girls who are in child marriages also face challenges when it comes to pregnancy because they do not have resources to go for regular medical check-ups,” Savadye said.
“The other setback is that they are not able to get enrolled on antiretroviral treatment quickly so that they protect their babies in case they are infected with HIV.
“In some cases, they are forced to walk long distances to a health service centre, which is difficult for them forcing them to use traditional means. So the risk of losing the child because their bodies are still young is high and are likely to die while giving birth.”
Child rights activists have been calling for marriage laws to be aligned to the new Constitution to plug off discrepancies.