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THE story of a 19-year-old woman from Emthunzini suburb in Bulawayo who blanketed the court with a sombre atmosphere while narrating how she was forcibly married off to her aunt’s husband when she was 13 years old made sad reading.
Estel Mzobe brought tears to many eyes in the gallery when she narrated her ordeal of how she was married off to her 38-year-old aunt Nonhlanhla Mzobe’s husband when she was in Form One.
What made the story more heart-rending were reports that her aunt reportedly took her from the rural areas claiming she was going to pay her school fees when infact her grand plan was allegedly to marry her off to her husband.
Estel’s heart-rending case is, however, not an isolated incident but also an indication of how a significant number of young girls, and a smaller number of boys, enter into marriage without any chance of exercising their right to choose.
According to the Multiple Indicator Cluster survey of 2014, 32 percent of women aged between 20 and 49 were married before their 18th birthday, in direct violation of the law of the land, which stipulates marriage only after the age of 18.
About one in three girls in Zimbabwe are married before their 18th birthday.
These figures are a worrisome reflection of a trend, which the new constitution is trying to resolve by putting the universal marriage age at 18 years. They are also a tip of the iceberg as there are so many cases that are swept under the carpet.
The effects of child marriages are no doubt dire, and if the problem is not addressed, it may pose a serious direct threat to the country’s efforts towards the attainment of up to seven Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and realisation of the demographic dividend.
Prevalence of child marriages is higher (more than double) in rural areas than it is in urban areas and child marriages are mostly characterised by one or both parties being physiologically and psychologically unprepared to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing.
Studies have shown that child marriages are a global evil with recorded socio-economic, and health disenfranchisement of its victims. Child marriage often results in children being alienated from the school system and in the process, shuttering them away from capacity realisation and development and empowerment opportunities that could lift them and their society out of poverty.
These arrangements also expose the child brides and their new-born babies to high health and death risks due to physiological immaturity and the related lack of utilisation of health care centres for deliveries.
Simuka Africa Youth Association chairperson Edwin Karangura recently called on Zimbabwean youths to come on board and help to resist the scourge of poverty-induced child marriages.
Speaking at an event to celebrate the recent United Nations Volunteers programme (UNV) award accorded to Simuka Africa, through its Indonesian volunteer Bianca Dayrit, for their international online campaign against child marriages Karangura said Zimbabweans should come on board and help the girl child who has been a victim of premature marriage.
“It is the duty of every Zimbabwean now more than ever to come on board and help the girl child who has been a victim of premature marriage.
“We are a youthful organisation coming up with solutions based on the values and desires of the youth and it is time for the youth to take centre stage in the fight against child marriages.
“We have discovered that the issue of poverty and the lack of resources is what is pushing these girls into early marriages and now our message is simply, please let us work together and end this,” Karangura said.
Karangura’s passionate plea is itself loaded and portrays a society that has failed the girl child.
A report produced by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) in 2014 predicted that if present trends continue, 142 million girls worldwide will marry before they reach the age of 18 over a 10-year forecast horizon (2015 to 2025).
The report further revealed that girls who marry before the age of 18 are 50 percent more likely to drop out of high school and four times less likely to graduate from college.
There is no doubt that child marriages result in rampant violation of human rights and social exclusion, as brides are exposed to inequality, domestic violence and lack of choice about their sexual and reproductive and developmental rights.
Religion is also a driver of child marriage in Zimbabwe. For example, in the apostolic faith, religion combines with traditional culture, and girls are often encouraged to marry much older men at a very young age.
Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support (Roots) executive director Beatrice Savadye said while poverty was touted as the biggest vice in child marriages, several subtle, but influential trends were also contributing to the problem, with pop culture being one of them.
“Pop culture is slowly emerging as one of the contributors to child marriages. A lot of teenagers are now taking part in activities like street sex and all-night parties, without taking time to think about the consequences of early sexual debut.”
She added that cultural practices such as chinamwari were also fuelling the problem of early child marriages, because girls ended up engaging in sexual exploits to practise what they were taught.
Savadye called for adequate research to explore more on the subject to ensure that the results would be used to find lasting solutions to the problem.
“Further research is needed on the subject so that policymakers and other stakeholders can offer prudent solutions to the problem, which has become a source of consternation.
“Our girls deserve a better future. That future will only be possible once we are able to identify where the problem is emanating from,” she said. As part of initiatives to end child marriages, in August 2015, Zimbabwe launched the African Union campaign to end child marriage. A National Action Plan and Communication Strategy was developed.
In 2014, two former child brides Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed an application asking the Constitutional Court to declare the Marriages Act and the Customary Marriages Act unconstitutional. In January 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Loveness and Ruvimbo, recognising that Section 22(1) of the Marriages Act [Chapter 5:11] was unconstitutional just as The Customary Marriages Act (Chapter 5:07) was unconstitutional in that it did not provide for a minimum age limit of 18 years in respect of any marriage contracted the law.