Child marriages cause for concern

Vaidah Mashangwa
According to Plan Zimbabwe it is estimated that 14.2 million girls aged younger than 18 are married worldwide without their consent. In Zimbabwe, the practice is also rampant and it is estimated that 3 out of every 10 girls (30 percent) in Zimbabwe are married before they attain 18 years. At times the girls are as young as 12 years (that is grade seven).

According to the Constitution of Zimbabwe a child is a boy or girl under the age of 18 years and this means a girl child under the age of 18 cannot be married. Despite such legislation, according to the booklet Field Practitioners Toolkit: Responsive Program Strategies for ending Child Marriage in Zimbabwe (June 2014) by Plan Zimbabwe, Zimbabwe has the 39th highest prevalence of child marriage globally.

Thirty percent of women in Zimbabwe aged 20 to 24 are married by age 18 and just under 4 percent are married by age 15.

In terms of provinces Mashonaland Central had the highest rate of child marriage followed by Mashonaland East with a prevalence rate of 63 and 56 percent respectively. Bulawayo had the lowest child marriage prevalence rate of 16 percent.

Child marriage is a gross violation of children’s rights and must be condemned in all senses as it limits the potential of girls to exploit their opportunities in life, be it socio-political and economic in nature. At the international level, Zimbabwe ratified the human rights instruments which include Convention to Eliminate Discrimination Against Women (1990) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1991). At the regional level, Zimbabwe ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.

At the national level the Domestic Violence Act, castigates issues pertaining to harmful cultural practices such as early child forced marriage and child pledging. Despite these efforts, Zimbabwe continues to be one of the countries with a high prevalence of child marriage.

There are quite a number of socio-political, economic, cultural and religious factors that are key drivers to early marriages. Poverty is one of them and in some cases girls are married off in exchange of a few bags of maize or cattle. This is done so that the family survives during that short period and for the girl it might be a time to escape from plaguing hunger at home. Some parents too still maintain that there are fewer long term benefits accrued after educating the girl child.

For the girls who marry under the Customary Law, the marriage at times is not registered making it difficult therefore to enforce the law. At times parents do not report as they view this as an economic benefit and educating the girl child is still viewed by some parents as an economic burden.

Most men still feel that they ought to marry virgins despite their own several sexual engagements and encounters. Marrying a young girl who is still a virgin to them is great achievement. There are quite a number of instances though when the same young girls are exposed to and infected with STIs and HIV thereby ruining their bright future forever.

At times where girls are raped the parents do not report the incident to the police but arrange for a secret marriage or the issue is solved out of court. This is common where the parents have no income.

One of the drivers too is religious beliefs and practices. Some Apostolic sects believe in polygamy and do not send the girl child to school. Some of the girls are married off as early as 12 years. According to Plan Zimbabwe there are over 1.2 million members of the Apostolic Sect and an increase in numbers means an increase in the number of early marriages.

In some communities, parents still believe that boy child should be sent to school at the expense of the girl child. This leaves the girl child vulnerable as she spends most of her time at home. Fearing that she might still fall pregnant some parents prefer to marry her off no matter what the risks are.

According to the research conducted by Plan Zimbabwe it is maintained that some girls especially in Tsholotsho, Chiredzi and Mwenezi prefer to marry early before they get older. There is a belief that men prefer young and inexperienced women over older experienced women.

Other drivers for early marriage include harassment and/or mistreatment at home and related to this is child headed homes. She might be forced into early marriage in order to fend for the family. On the other hand some step parents can be so cruel to step children that early marriage becomes the only option.

There are multiple consequences related to early child marriage. First, the young girls are at a higher risk of being victims of domestic violence because they tend to marry older men who might have different expectations from theirs.

The girls too may also have less negotiating powers in terms of protective sex, family planning methods and other issues related to finances in the home. Apart from that, their health is compromised as they are expected to resume reproductive roles at that early age. At that early stage the girls at times have little or no access to information related to child birth. According to UNICEF teenage girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die from maternal causes.

One of the most effective strategies to end early marriages is to ensure that young girls and women are empowered economically, socially and politically. To this end the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development developed the Girls and Young Women Empowerment Framework with a view to ensure that they have access to education and reproductive health.

When the girl child is educated she is able to make decisions on matters that affect her. An educated girl is able to determine the age at which she might want marriage. Education provides a shield to early child marriage. Through education, the girl child acquires the necessary skills and information that enhance her life skills.

In order to address this problem, a multi-sectorial approach is also important in curbing early childhood marriage. There is a need to work with the churches, traditional leaders, engaging men and the girls themselves, the media, policy makers and the communities in general. The media both electronic and print is important in advancing the needs, interests and challenges faced by the girl child.

As we approach the International Women Day, our celebrations cannot be complete without ensuring that the girl child and young women’s issues are addressed.

l Vaidah Mashangwa is the Bulawayo Provincial Development Officer, Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development. She can be contacted on 0772111592 or email: [email protected].

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