In many societies, the girl child is meticulously raised and granted protection from the vices afflicting the community. At the same time, the girl child is still viewed, in many cultures and societies, particularly in Africa and in countries such as India, as an instrument or object that could be used to settle debts or exchanged for other various reasons. Culture is dynamic and this is widely acknowledged, but when it comes to harmful cultural practices that negatively affect the girl child, it ceases to be dynamic.
Lynot Munyaka & Rachel Gonayi
Let us consider the allegory below, so that we put things into perspective. The rate of child marriages is quite high in Zimbabwe and the trends are worrisome. A recent study by Plan International revealed that 31% of girls are married before the age of 18. Child marriages derail the country’s focus and quest to achieve development. The government as the duty bearer has a role to play in terms of aligning laws considering that child marriages are sexual exploitation, but they alone cannot end the scourge.
The experiences of the girl child
Two brothers from Mlindi family (not their real name) from Matabeleland North were at a social gathering drinking beer. They had a conflict with John and James from Sigauke family. They started fighting and James ran home to fetch an axe wanting to fight back. Unfortunately, one fellow from the Mlindi family managed to grab the axe and struck John on the head. He died on the spot. The Sigauke family demanded a girl for the deceased person as a wife, in order to appease the avenging spirit. A poor little girl called Thando (11) from the Mlindi family was instructed to sit on top of the deceased’s coffin on the day of burial. Members of the Sigauke family performed some rituals “uniting” the living girl with the dead spirit, so that the two would be husband and wife.
This meant that John would be a spiritual husband to Thando. According to the cultural belief, he would appear in her dreams being intimate with her. Sadly, Thando would remain unmarried for the rest of her life. With our culture, once girls are married, they are not permitted to continue with their education, which is bad as far as their right to education is concerned.
Child marriages disrupt the process of development which would culminate in the country failing to achieve its set sustainable development goals. One of the goals is that by 2030, the practice of child marriages should have been done away with, so that children are left to explore their full potential as they grow.
Misconceptions are rife as much as misinformation is pervasive when it comes to the issue.
Despite their harmful nature and being a violation of local and international human rights laws, such cultural practices have remained existing in Zimbabwe, not only because they are not questioned by society, but due to lack of knowledge as well. A lot of ignorance and a reluctance to embrace change is professed by the communities in which these practices occur. The poor little girl dropped out of school, she will not realise her right of education because she is now a wife of the late John Mlindi. As a result of her not being educated, she will remain unemployed in the rural areas of Matabeleland. The cycle of poverty will continue for generations to come. She relies heavily on agriculture for a living and if the rains fail she is vulnerable to poverty.
In the Zimbabwean Constitution (Amendment No 20 of 2013) and other international conventions, it is every child’s right to free and quality education, but some young girls will never realise this right because of these harmful cultural and social practices. Some communities support these practices, because they believe that they must appease the dead spirit. It is believed that the dead has dominion over the living.
This poor girl and many others who are victims of violence, abuse and exploitation lack freedom in terms of decision-making.
They are deprived of making decisions on issues that affect their personal development in life. These young victims cannot contribute to the development of the community for they are regarded as (mukadzi wengozi/umfazi wengozi); someone who is believed to be an outcast and has bad luck. This practice actually has psychological effects on these girls, and they can develop mental conditions like depression due to social stigma associated with being a spiritual wife.
A landmark ruling of January 2017 in the case of Mudzuru and Tsopodzo vs Minister of Justice outlawed child marriages, categorically stating that no child below the age of 18 should get married. Despite the ruling, the law is yet to be aligned to reflect the progressive strides being made on the matter. Zimbabwe is signatory to many international legal instruments that denounce the practice of child marriages such as African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights of 1981 and African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child of 1991. The Constitution of Zimbabwe (2013) also provides for a legal basis for interventions in article 81. Civil society organisations such as Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children and Padare/Enkundleni/Men’s Forum on Gender have held community interventions whereby they go into communities to educate people particularly men and boys on their role and the consequences of it thereof.
What needs to be done?
Therefore, there is need for the community to stop the practices, consider the rights and future of these children, the community should be a safety haven for girls. There must be specific legislation that protects the young girls from harmful cultural practices. There should be mechanisms in place to remove victims to places of safety away from perpetrators, where they can be rehabilitated and lead healthy, productive lives.
The society should be bold for change. To fill in the gap, men and boys in the communities where these vices take place have a responsibility of safe-guarding the future of the girl child. There are numerous challenges which make it difficult to end such harmful practices. Available data indicates that poverty is one of the phenomena which fuels child marriages. A mindset change has to be cultivated in our communities to end the practice of harmful social and cultural beliefs. Awareness has to be raised to provide information and knowledge in order to empower our communities.