Shamiso Yikoniko —
Her fate was sealed when her family forced her to stay with the man who had delayed her from going home until late into the night. And yet 13-year-old Martha (not real name) of Seke was not ready to become a wife.
“My relationship with my family wasn’t the best,” she says.
“I was poor. I had no education and no resources of my own. Besides, Tinashe (not real name) was way older than me and staying with him after only a month into the relationship wasn’t what I perceived.”
Martha says she was kicked out of the family home and forced to live with her then 20-year-old boyfriend. Swapping a life of hardship for that of a wife at such an age was not something that she had figured in her plans.
“At first, the marriage was nice and easy. My husband was loving,” Martha remembers.
“After a year, things changed. Suddenly there were times (my husband) would become physically violent.”
The physical abuse reportedly continued even when Martha was pregnant. And her in-laws didn’t make life any easier.
“My mother-in-law would shout at me at any chance she got. She blamed me for thwarting her son’s future,” Martha narrates.
“Instead of me enjoying my so-called marriage, I was turned into a housemaid – every household chore became my responsibility despite the fact that I was pregnant.”
After four years of marriage and three children, Martha – now 17 – has left her husband.
“No one helped me when I left,” she says.
“I was by myself. I didn’t go to school. I was busy being a mother and a housewife. And to add salt to the wound, Tinashe didn’t pay lobola for me as what’s expected in our tradition. Though it was a hard decision to go back home and face my family with three kids, it had to be done.”
Luckily, her mother welcomed her back even though her father was against the idea.
Early marriages violate Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as several other human rights treaties, notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the world’s most widely ratified human rights agreement.
Martha shares her story to advocate against the practice of child, early and forced marriages.
“I want to help other girls who might be in a similar situation,” she says.
“I want to tell them to go school. You become powerless if you don’t get any education.”
In Zimbabwe, child, early and forced marriages are illegal — yet an estimated 34 percent of girls are married by the time they are 18-years-old.
The Marriage Act (Chapter 5:11), which governs civil marriage, states that the minimum age for marriage is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. The Customary Marriages Act (Chapter 5:07]) does not set a minimum age.
According to a 2012 United Nations study, one-in-three girls in the developing world will be married by her 18th birthday, or 14 million per year or nearly 39 000 girls every day.
The World Health Organisation says this is most prevalent in India, the Middle East and Africa.
Plan International Zimbabwe’s gender advisor, Ms Nobesuthu Mgutshini, says: “The greatest problem facing Zimbabwean women today is child marriages.
“These early marriages rob the girl of the right to a normal childhood and education. The girls are forced to have children before their bodies are fully grown.
“It forces girls out of education and provides them with extremely poor prospects and put them at a much greater risk of violence and abuse.”
Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are the most affected.
Mashonaland Central leads with 50 percent, followed by Mashonaland West at 42 percent, Masvingo has 39 percent, Mashonaland East 36 percent, Midlands 31 percent, Manicaland 30 percent and Matebeleland North 27 percent, Harare 19 percent, Matebeleland South 18 percent and Bulawayo about 10 percent.
National director of Padare/Enkundleni, a men’s forum on gender, Mr Walter Vengesai, called for a holistic intervention on child marriages.
“What’s needed now is a comprehensive sexuality education for the adolescents and youths to understand their bodies so they delay sexual debuts,” says Mr Vengesai.
Research indicates that “marriage before the age of 18 is influenced by various factors ranging from poverty, orphan-hood, family honour, legislated minimum sexual consent and marriageable age, religious and cultural values”.
Child brides face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual exposure. And statistics indicate that pregnancy is the leading cause of death worldwide for girls aged between 15 and 19.
“A lot needs to be done. There’s no one solution to ending child marriages. As Zimbabwe we need a conducive policy environment to ensure children and especially girls are protected from child marriage,” she says.
“Child protection laws need to be harmonised as a matter of urgency to close the gap on laws that many perpetrators use to defend themselves for sexually violating girls.”
Malawi has one of the highest rates of child marriages in the world, ranking at number eight out of 20. After seeing girls as young as 12 walking around with babies, Malawian chief Theresa Kachindamoto has annulled more than 850 child marriages in the past three years in Dedza district.
Chief Kachindamoto got 50 sub-chiefs to sign an agreement to annul all existing child marriages and ban future ones. Following this, she used her own money to send the children back to school.
And last year, the Malawi government banned children from marrying before the age of 18.
Back in Zimbabwe, Social Welfare Ministry acting legal advisor Mr Kudzaishe Havazvide says Cabinet is amending the Children’s Act to align it with the Constitution by criminalising child marriges.
“Although the Constitutional Court outlawed child marriages, there is no law criminalising the same. Our ministry has initiated the process of amending the laws to criminalise certain breaches of the children’s rights,” he says.
Mr Havazvide says the Zero Draft Bill will soon be forwarded to the Attorney-General’s Office for crafting of a Bill.
Plan International Zimbabwe empowers girls affected by child marriages through the Because I Am A Girl and 18+ Ending Child Marriage projects.
The 18+ programme contributes to ending child marriages in Zimbabwe, tackling child marriages at financial, social, personal and material level.
“We do this by focusing on girls empowerment and agency building; influence transformation, change of attitude, norms and behaviours that lead to child marriage,” says Ms Mguthsini.
“We also engage men, boys, traditional and religious leaders, thought leaders and influential people.
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