BY Linda Mujuru
WHEN Anna Machaya died while giving birth at the shrine of one of Zimbabwe’s most secretive religious sects, there was outcry across the country.
Anna was only a child, having turned 15 years old a mere 10 days before her July 15, 2021 death. She was carrying the baby of Hatirarami Momberume, her 26-year-old husband. It is unclear when they married, but it was with the consent of her parents, who belong to the Johane Marange Apostolic Church, a conservative religious sect that has been accused of marrying underage girls to older men. When their daughter died, the parents tried to cover it up, police said.
“The parents openly lied to the police,” said a report posted on the police website.
Police spokesperson Assistant Commissoner Paul Nyathi said the parents attempted to hide their daughter’s true age by presenting investigators with identification documents of her 22-year-old cousin.
Anna’s death has renewed calls for the Zimbabwean government to crack down on religious sects like Johane Marange, which critics accuse of institutionalising sexual abuse and marriage of girls to older men. Child marriages are endemic in the country, with 33% of women and 4% of men aged 20-49 reporting that they were married before reaching the adult age of 18, according to a 2019 survey by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency. But critics say adults who arrange child marriages rarely get prosecuted because sects like Marange have a lot of political power.
Aaron Nhepera, the permanent secretary in the Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage ministry, denies that the government ignores suspected crimes of churches like Marange.
“We have not turned a blind eye,” Nhepera said. “Any issue that is brought to our attention is investigated without bias.”
In a written statement, Nyathi said police do not have data on cases of child marriage because the current law does not prohibit it. But he saidpolice do prosecute offenders under laws forbidding sex with minors. Between 2018 and 2021, police handled more than 10 100 cases of people accused of having sex with children, he said.
Zimbabwe’s National Assembly recently passed a Bill that could formally ban child marriages and allow police to properly prosecute offenders. It is awaiting President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s signature. But children’s rights advocates said that even if the Bill becomes law, they doubt it would make a difference because child marriage is a societal problem, which is why it is prevalent in sects like Marange.
Sharon Hofisi, a human rights lawyer, said that while the proposed law clearly forbids child marriages, it will not be effective without proactive campaigns by the government, the media and independent institutions to change society’s attitudes toward the
“Sex with children under the legal age of [consent at] 16 seems rampant, but enforcement of laws has been reactive, especially when dealing with the Marange sect, which uses religion to justify sex with underage persons,” Hofisi said.
Johane Marange founded the eponymous sect in 1932. What was initially a small sect made up mostly of his extended family became popular among Zimbabweans because it blended the teachings of Christianity with traditional beliefs like polygamy, which existed before European colonisation. With more than 1,2 million followers, it is one of the largest apostolic sects in Zimbabwe, which gives it significant political power.
Kudzai Biri, a Zimbabwean-born professor at the University of Bamberg in Germany, said the close relationship between politics and religion has made it difficult to fight child marriages. Politicians protect sects like Marange in order to secure votes, she said, a practice former President Robert Mugabe normalised and that has continued under the current president. “They sacrifice social justice for political gain,” Biri said.
The political connections of the Marange sect go all the way to the highest level of government. Both Mugabe and Mnangagwa addressed congregations of Marange worshipers at the invitation of the now late sect leader Noah Taguta. When Taguta died on April 17 at age 82, Mnangagwa said the government would cover some of the funeral expenses. The president also sent a delegation of ministers to deliver his message of condolences in which he described Taguta as a leader who “enlightened the life of the girl-child in the church.”
Abraham Mafararikwa, one of Marange’s top leaders, denies that the church tries to influence politicians in order to get protection from the government. “Our church is not involved in politics because politics is a dirty game,” he said.
Mafararikwa acknowledges that Anna was a member of his sect, but he denies that Marange condones child marriages.
But interviews with some of the sect’s followers contradict him. Mary, who declined to give her last name for fear of repercussions, said she was born and raised in the sect, and staunchly believes in its teachings. Mary, 37, said when she was 15, her parents married her to a 27-year-old sect member. She said that child marriages still happen, and she defends the practice.
“People condemn our church for marrying off young children, but children as young as fifth-graders are out there engaging in sex,” she said. “A minor who has gone to a husband to have sex is better than one who is doing it outside marriage.”
Unlike Mary, Patricia Moyo said she and her family decided to leave the Marange sect after decades of faith.
Moyo was born into the sect, got married and had nine children, none of whom were vaccinated. Within eight years, four of the children, between ages 1 and 7, died because Marange members are forbidden to seek medical care at hospitals, she said.
“Losing a child is the most painful thing a mother could ever experience,” Moyo said.
When her remaining five children contracted measles in 2020, Moyo defied the sect and immediately took them to a nearby hospital. After they recovered, she decided to walk away from the sect she had known all her life. She said the decision not to take her four other children to the hospital before they died still haunts her.
“It was my duty to protect my children,” she said, fighting back tears. “l failed them, and l regret the choices l made.”
Nhepera, the permanent secretary also said the government investigates every case thoroughly, critics find it hard to believe that there has been justice for Anna. Her parents were charged but only got fined for trying to deceive investigators. Momberume, her husband, was arrested, charged and released on bail before he failed to show up for a scheduled court date in November, says Brian Majamanda, the lawyer who represented him. Neither the lawyer nor the police know his whereabouts.
- Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare.