IT took the death of Memory Machaya, a 14-year-old girl who died during childbirth at a church shrine in the eastern region of Marange last year, to finally awaken the country to the dangers of child marriages, a scourge society had been happy to turn a blind eye to.
Child marriages are not uniquely a Zimbabwe problem as shown by a report by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) which says that globally, more than one in four girls are married as children — before the age of 18.
In the east and southern African region, the number of girls married before the age of 18 is 36%, while 10% of girls in the region are married by age 15.
According to a Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStat) report in 2019, 33,7% of girls aged under 18 are married, representing one in three girls in that age group.
That figure holds true today, according to authorities and in some areas, more than half are minors.
Zimbabwe is among the 20 African countries where child marriages are most prevalent.
The Machaya case exposed the exploitation of minors and this year, for the first time, Zimbabwe finally enacted a new law that criminalises child marriage in the country.
It is, therefore, worrying when a new report by the Zimbabwe Coalition on Debt and Development (Zimcodd) shows that many children are still being ushered into early marriage under the age of 15.
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The report reads: “Child protection remains wanting in Zimbabwe. A lot of children are being ushered into early marriage, approximately 34% of girls under the age of 18 are married, while 5% of girls under the age of 15 are married.
“The challenge of child marriage is not limited to the girl child only as approximately 2% of boys marry under the age of 18. However, the importance of this disaggregated data is to bring to light the varying impact and effects of child marriages on the girl and boy child.
“Although the boy child is also affected by child marriage, the dimension of the plight and agony of suffering being experienced by the girl child is different from the one experienced by the boy child.”
As the UNFPA/Unicef report notes, child marriages can have devastating consequences for girls and their future children. It cuts short or ends a girl’s education, compromises her reproductive rights, sexual health, future employment and earnings, and perpetuates personal and community poverty.
In other words, forced and early marriage upends the girl child’s life.
While Zimbabwe is one of the countries committed to eliminating child marriage, it is clear that more effort is required by all stakeholders to fight this vile practice.
The Zimcodd report shows that Zimbabwe has weak child protection systems, especially when 4,8 million Zimbabwean children live in poverty and 1,6 million children live in extreme poverty, according to Unicef.
It makes the children vulnerable to exploitation.
Zimbabwe needs to do more to protect our national treasure, the girl child.