ON January 20, 2016, Loveness Mudzuru (19) and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi (18), who had approached the Constitutional Court through their lawyer, Tendai Biti, challenging the Customary Marriages Act, became heroines after the court ruled in their favour.
BY JAIROS SAUNYAMA
They became celebrities overnight and role models to many after Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba and eight other ConCourt judges outlawed child marriages and struck off section 22(1) of the Marriage Act, which, for decades, had allowed children under the age of 18 years to formally get married.
The court ruling came at a time Zimbabwe was rated among the top countries where child marriages were prevalent.
With various stakeholders still celebrating the victory, the effects of the landmark ruling are still to be assessed and the looming hunger in Zimbabwe’s countryside may still force families to trade their daughters for food, a practice that has been in force since time immemorial.
Hunger and poverty have been the driving forces of child marriages, with folks in the country’s most remote and underdeveloped areas still trading their female children in exchange for food.
In areas like Zaka, Mutoko and Buhera, child marriages are expected to rise this year, as the El-Nino effects are being felt in the form of drought.
These areas have no effective communication systems such that to date, they are not aware of the ruling, and are still stuck in theirtraditional way of life.
Mashonaland East based gender activist and Marondera Town Council deputy chamber secretary, Marjory Svisva said despite the ruling, more is needed to protect the rights of the girl-child.
“The issue of child marriages is no exception to this violation ofwomen’s rights. Recently, the Constitutional Court delivered a landmark ruling against that, but the challenge is that with the declaration of drought in the country, the most vulnerable are the rural and farming area folks, who are ignorant to this ruling, let alone the Constitution itself. Moreover, our culture permits kuzvarirwa (betrothal at birth), another major problem,” she said.
“While it is a fact that the law of the land takes precedence, moreneeds to be done to ensure the girl-child is kept in school and the community is capacitated to protect the girl-child from early marriages.”
Climatologists have warned that the El Nino weather phenomenon, caused by the warming Pacific Ocean, is expected to devastate East and Southern African nations, including Zimbabwe, in 2016.
Subsistence farming, which provides rural Zimbabweans with food, is in shambles, as some areas are yet to receive rains. Award-winning women rights activist, Talent Jumo, founder of KatsweSistahood, said there is need for the police to be out in full force to ensure offenders are brought to book.
She urged government to provide resources to rural communities to ensure there is no hunger or elements that fuel early child marriages.
“We cannot tolerate a society where our girls’ lives and dreams are used to resolve El Nino woes. Our communities should reform and recognise girls as equal human beings, who have rights that have to be protected.
“Solutions should come from the people and the government and sacrifices should be made through ensuring equitable distribution of resources. We should fight this culture where society views its girls as sacrificial lambs for every problem.
“We also need, for the first time, an operation that targets those who marry children off, that is, Operation Muchechehaaroodzwe, by the police. If this is done and resources are committed, we will know that the constitutional ruling has had the desired results. The ruling is an enabling factor, and now we need Parliament to align laws and repeal provisions that allow for child marriages,” Jumo said.
Prominent lawyer, Tendai Biti, who represented the two former child brides (Mudzuru and Tsopodzi), told journalists after the court session that the biggest driver of child marriages was poverty and deprivation.
“Poverty drives child marriages and for Zimbabwe, even with the prescription of beautiful laws, the practice could still go on.
“Government figures show that at least 79% of Zimbabweans live in extreme poverty, there is general breakdown of the social fabric, child marriages are inevitable and the country has become the continent’s divorce capital,” he said.
A survey conducted by NewsDay revealed that underage girls in some remote parts of Mashonaland East, especially Mutoko East, are in a polygamous marriage.
In an interview with this paper, last year Chief Chimoyo, real name Jeremiah Zambezi, of Mutoko expressed anger and blasted youths who are engaging in sexual intercourse at an early age.
He said early marriages and unwanted pregnancies are rampant and said they are affecting the education of mainly the girl-child. He revealed that at each traditional court sitting, he deals with two cases of pregnancies from minors.
“The problem is getting out of hand and I am not happy about how these young boys and girls are conducting themselves. Most girls are engaging in sexual activities and some drop out of school in Form 3, thereby, missing their O Level examinations.
“The traditional court sits once every month, but we deal with two cases of unwanted pregnancies, which is not good. Early marriages and unwanted pregnancies are fuelled by lack of knowledge, poverty and trickery,” Chief Chimoyo said.
According to research conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium-Zimbabwe and the University of Zimbabwe’s Centre of Applied Science, poverty makes young girls more vulnerable and 65% of rural girls are married or impregnated before the age of 19.
A recent survey by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has revealed that 31% of Zimbabwean girls under the age of 18 were victims of forced marriages with 15% of them getting married at the age of 15.
The statistics were released in Harare in a joint communiqué issued by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Zimbabwe Chiefs’ Council and Plan International.
Part of the communiqué reads: “We note with concern that 31% (UNFPA, 2012 report) of girls are married before the age of 18 years in Zimbabwe and further note that in 2009, the Zimbabwe NationalStatistics Agency (Zimstat) recorded that 16,3% of the Zimbabwean population is married by the age of 15 years.”
The survey reiterated that, the majority of the girls were pushed into early marriages by poverty, cultural norms and other social, economic and religious practices.
Human rights experts say that child marriages robbed the victims of their basic rights like health, freedom of choice and education.