This week’s landmark judgment outlawing child marriages should be applauded by all progressive Zimbabweans that have the rights of our children at heart.
The Constitutional Court ruled that with immediate effect no child under the age of 18 can legally enter into marriage.
The Marriages Act provided for marriage of under age children, especially 16-year-old girls, with the consent of their guardians, while an underage boy needed the Justice Minister’s consent to marry an underage girl.
All these provisions have been struck down to protect the girl child especially since the practice of pledging young girls is quite common in some communities.
We should, however, not blindly celebrate the legal victory since for most families, the practice was never premised on these legal provisions that many have no idea about but long standing traditions steeped in patriarchal systems.
That is the new frontier that child rights campaigners have to confront and overcome. Different communities look at different features to measure maturity and believe in their systems, not necessarily the number of years hence the need to educate communities that the 18 years is not negotiable. The ruling comes in a drought year when already there have been reports of young girls being married off to elderly men by parents and guardians seeking to escape hunger.
These elderly people that hide behind tradition and marry off the young girls destroy these children’s future and expose them to abuse and even chronic diseases. It is our belief that girls and boys over the age of 18, though still very young, could be assisted to make better decisions that 16-year-olds. There are also some religious sects where marrying off young girls is so entrenched it would be difficult to get rid of overnight. This has become an intergenerational practice where grandparents, their daughters and their own daughters were married around 12 and have found that to be a normal way of doing things.
Even as the ruling was being made, we fear some children were being prepared for marriage and these closed communities are difficult to break through into, though ways will have to be found to educate them.
Enforcement of the law is quite crucial and it should be noted that in some of these sects men, some masquerading as prophets, wield so much power it would be difficult for the followers to report them for any excesses.
The biggest hurdle lies in the mindsets of those that the law seeks to liberate. For example, there have been reports of Africans living in the Diaspora that believe in female circumcision(female genital mutilation) and have been sending their girl children to Africa on holiday where they then undergo the procedure as a rite of passage, regardless of the legal provisions outlawing such.
It is with this background in mind that we urge for a two-pronged approach that has education and empowerment of the girl child and their communities on one hand and the use of legal instruments on the other.
Once again, we salute our Constitutional Court for the ruling and urge all Zimbabweans to ensure we use such reforms of our legal system to better the living conditions of our children so that we secure their future.