EFFORTS to stamp out child marriage, which remains a major public health and social development challenge for Zimbabwe, are beginning to bear fruit, with former child brides rising from their circumstances and going back to school.
BY PHYLIIS MBANJE
Many girls, once they are married, drop out of school and this worsens their plight because they become more dependent on the man.
This is why former child brides are now opting to go back to school once they escape the vice.
The Education Act specifies that every child has a right to education and must not be discriminated against. Twenty-year-old Marita (not real name) is now in Form 3 at Chipangura School. She is a former child-bride. Sharing her story during a conference on ending child marriages recently convened by Women Action Group, Marita said going back to school had offered her another chance to rewrite her life story.
“I got married when I was just 16 years old. My life was literally a living hell,” she said. Her husband beat her up at the smallest provocation.
“He berated me in front of people, but no one stood up for me. I was miserable for the two years that I stayed with him. I missed going to school and wished I could go back.”
Marita was lucky and got a second chance to realise her dreams. She looks just like any other high school girl in her cream blazer and maroon skirt. She does not look her age and one could easily mistake her for a 15-year-old.
“I blame myself for succumbing to peer pressure and falling pregnant, a situation which forced me to marry early,” she said.
Her parents accepted the bride price even though it was evident that Marita was too young for marriage. One of the strategies by stakeholders working towards eradicating child marriages is changing mindsets.
Headlands MP Christopher Chingosho said community leaders had a responsibility to provide education about the dangers of early marriages.
“These young girls are disadvantaged because they will not be able to reach their full potential,” he said.
Mercy (not her real name) was 13 when she got married. She had no idea what it all meant and struggled in her role as a wife. But after giving birth, she decided to go back to school and is now a student at St Francis.
“My classmates have been very supportive. They embraced me and even came to see the baby. They did not laugh at me and that made me fit in well,” she said.
Both girls are lucky as re-integration was quite easy for them, but some have had to deal with stigma and ostracisation. But for Ellen (not her real name), she is still trapped in a marriage that she entered when she was only 14 years old. A poor background forced her to marry early, as a way to fend for her siblings.
“I was the eldest and when my grandmother who was looking after us died, I had to make some painful decisions,” she said.
Ellen had her first baby at 15 and when the baby was only a year and a few months old, she fell pregnant again.
“He (referring to her husband) is very abusive and beats me up all the time. Prior to this meeting, he was beating me up every day,” she said.
She said her husband took away all the money she made from odd jobs.
“I stay with him because I have no parents and no home. So, where will I go?” Ellen asked.
African Union goodwill ambassador Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda said there has to be a shift on the right to education as well as societal expectations.
“Girls who are survivors of the violence now suffer re-victimisation and are blamed. And instead of being seen as survivors, we call them perpetrators,” she said.
Legislator Chingosho says government needed to step up by ensuring programmes like Basic Education Assistance Module (Beam) stay in place. Beam was conceived as part of the Enhanced Social Protection Project (ESPP) which was launched by the government of Zimbabwe in 2000. The programme was in response to worsening social conditions in the country, which were causing the poor to suffer deepening multiple shocks (escalating prices of basic commodities, retrenchments and high unemployment rates, high drop outs of schoolchildren and high interest and inflation rates).Child MP Faith Mbizvo said many girls who were in such marriages suffered a lot and many drop out of school.
“Child marriage traps the girls in a cycle of poverty and the marriage law is still discriminatory,” she said.
Although the Constitution is specific on the age of consent, marriage laws still need to be aligned.
A representative from the Justice ministry, Edward Mushamiri, said the current Marriages Act favoured men. There are several inequalities because it is the man who decides on the type of marriage,” he said.
However, delays in the alignment of the laws were largely due to the overwhelming number of laws to be aligned.
“Over 400 laws are still to be aligned,” he said.
Gumbonzvanda said people should go beyond the conversation when talking about cultural norms.
“It’s about the embedded values that we have within our society. So the best practices that we have as our social norms are not static, but transient.
We are in a revolution of the shifting conversation,” she said.
Gumbonzvanda explained that there was need to rename what people were talking about.
“Be precise when talking about child marriage. Is it rape, abduction or cultural practice? It is not a single narrative,” she said.
She said in the absence of resources, the discussions would remain village conversations.