The Sunday Mail
REGARDLESS of efforts and campaigns against child marriages in Zimbabwe, the issue remains a major cause of concern.
And under-age girls from apostolic sects have not been spared from the predicament. It is against this background that a women rights group under the apostolic umbrella has decided to tackle the problem head on. Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (Awet), an inter-apostolic church organisation, was created to advance adolescents and women’s issues in apostolic churches. Awet founder, Mrs Tendayi Gudo, said her efforts come against a backdrop of shocking child marriage statistics in apostolic churches.
“The Trust seeks to influence apostolic churches to give space to women and girls so that they can make decisions about their social and economic well-being,” said Mrs Gudo.
“Addressing issues of child mothers and teenage marriage requires a mix of measures as it is clear that apostolic girls are at greater risk of being in early child marriages. Hence as women in the apostolic sects, our voice will make a big difference in ending child marriages,” she said.
According to a 2012 United Nations study, one in three girls in the developing world will be married by her 18th birthday – that’s 14 million per year or nearly 39 000 girls every day.
Despite its pervasiveness, forced early marriages have rarely been viewed as human rights violation. Nonetheless, it violates 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 treaty.
In Zimbabwe, for example, child early and forced marriages are illegal — yet an estimated 34 percent of girls will be married by the time they are 18 years old. The Marriage Act [Chapter 5:11] governing civil marriage, states that the minimum age of marriage is 16 years for girls and 18 for boys.
The consequences are appalling.
Along with an education and childhood cut short, girls suffer a traumatic initiation into sexual relationships, are put at risk of domestic violence and STIs, and have the chance of a career or better life taken away.
Plan International Zimbabwe’s Gender Advisor, Ms Nobesuthu Mgutshini, said child marriage is a huge trigger point for negative outcomes. “The greatest problem facing Zimbabwean women today is child marriages,” Ms Mguthsini said.
“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 of 18, is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are inexplicably the most affected.
Mashonaland Central leads with 50 percent, followed by Mashonaland West at 42 percent. Masvingo has 39 percent, Mashonaland East (36), Midlands (31), Manicaland (30) and Matebeleland North (27), Harare (19), Matebeleland South (18) and Bulawayo (10).
The Customary Marriages Act [Chapter 5:07], which governs customary marriages at law, does not set a limit to the minimum age at which individuals can marry. In Zimbabwe, one in every three girls is married before they reach 18.
According to World Health Organisation, 14,2 million girls under the age of 5 are forced into marriage each year. Most of these come from India, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa.
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.”
Ms Mguthsini reaffirms that economically empowering girls gives them have wider choices and options to do than just getting married. “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 marriages,” she said.
“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.