By Nhau Mangirazi
HURUNGWE– Sharon Chiringa (27) is walking like a wounded zebra that has survived the jungle fights literally against lions and tigers to save its young ones.
She is a torchbearer for many young girls who were under the yoke of forced marriages around Hurungwe district in Mashonaland West province.
The district has a breeding ground for forced marriages in both farming and mining areas.
Chiringa took ‘the bull by its horns and won several battles in her quest to save girls from forced marriages in one of the country’s largest districts.
‘‘It is hard to convince an underage young girl who could have been forced into early marriage to move away from her relatives, let alone educate communities that believe in harmful cultural practices including kugara nhaka that is replacing a dead woman with a young one among other issues. The worst case scenario is if she has been raped, some may not want to testify against close family members thereby exposing me as someone against family unity but fueling divisions. Our thrust is to help behavior change among communities and we are making better strides,’’ she explained.
Statistics by Zimbabwe Gender Commission (ZGC) show that Mashonaland Central province tops the list with 49,5% girls, 6,7% boys married at a young age, followed by Mashonaland West with 41,7% girls and 5,6% boys.
Mashonaland East came third with 37,8% girls and 3,9% boys, followed by Masvingo with 35,3% girls and 4,2% boys with Manicaland having 36% girls and 3,4% boys.
Matabeleland North is rated at number six with 32,9% girls and 5,5% boys entering into early child marriages, followed by the Midlands with 30,4% girls and 2,7% boys.
Matabeleland South had 22,2% girls and 1,7% boys, while Harare had at 21,7% girls and 2,7% boys, with Bulawayo being the least with 13,5% girls and 2,7% boys.
“Statistics from the Multiple Indicator Survey demonstrate that child marriage is still a challenge in Zimbabwe and disproportionately affecting more girls than boys. Further indications are that child marriage prevalence is high (40%) in rural areas as compared to urban areas (21,3%),” ZGC said.
Chiringa doubles as the Apostolic Women Empowerment Trust (AWET) provincial and Hurungwe district focal person.
It is part of the Spotlight Initiative working with UNICEF fighting for girl child rights in the country ten provinces.
Since 2016, AWET has been fighting as a national advocacy movement aimed at restoring girls’ rights and dignity so that they are not forced into early marriages.
Chiringa explained that the groundwork kick-started through the training under ‘Accountability for Affected Persons and how to make use of referral pathways for affected members of the society with a bias towards girls in the district.’
‘‘We trained 135 behavior Change Facilitators (BCFs) in Hurungwe district covering the vast of 26 rural wards,’’ she said.
The rural wards are under Chiefs Chanetsa, Dandawa, and Mjinga.
As part of the grassroots approach, AWET has reached out to both faith and traditional leaders who are committed to taking up action against violence against women and girls.
‘‘It is paying off for us as we have seen remarkable change through grassroots reporting systems by our officers on behavior change. If there are victims that need care and support including safety and shelter, we facilitate that to limit further assaults even murder cases due to gender-based violence,’’ she added.
‘‘Young girls are failing to make it in life because of some cultural and traditional beliefs. This made me realize the need for the emancipation of women and girls,’’ said Chiringa.
She was touched on how girls in rural areas are marginalized especially in Hurungwe.
‘‘Considering that some Apostolic Faith sects force them to be in early marriages as part of the gospel of the day in terms of formal education, they are not fully empowered so there is the need for the society to consider the future of a girl child,’’ said Charinga.
Chiringa explained that they are working with other stakeholders including the Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender Small to Medium and Community Development, health, the Zimbabwe Republic Police among others depending on the gravity of each and separate case.
‘‘Each case is treated differently. So far we have handled about 39 cases since January. These cases involve early child marriages, physical violence, and rape of juveniles by mostly close relatives,’’ said Chiringa.
She further explained that there are six cases of young girls who had been forced into early marriages.
‘‘We had six cases of forced marriages that we handled this year alone. With the assistance of the department of social welfare, we managed to get them from their so-called husbands and four of them are now at school.
‘‘The other two are staying at the safe house while the cases are still going through the courts as we monitor about their welfare,’’ she added.
The Ministry of Women Affairs, Gender Small to Medium and Community Development, Hurungwe district official Miriam Kagoro said the move has paid off in reducing gender-based violence in the district
Kagoro said there are male activists who are pushing for boys’ and girls’ rights.
‘‘In Hurungwe’s ward 18 there is a male gender champions group known as the Dare Guru which compromises 25 men drawn from different religious groups like African traditional religion, Apostolic sects, and Muslims. They are initiating the Dare concept in which every household is building a traditional dare in which males will sit and discuss life issues as per the Korekore culture. The Dare Guru is also fighting against sexual and gender-based violence further strengthening the capacity of traditional institutions in addressing violence against women and girls in communities,’’ she explained.
Senator Abel Mbasera who is Chief Chundu welcomed the grassroots approach of bringing men to end violence.
”Men can be part of solutions to gender-based violence. We must have boys at a tender age and be part of solutions,” said Chief Chundu.
Chiringa said although she like many girl rights advocates are concerned to fight for minors’ rights, some cases are swept under the carpet.
‘‘In most rape cases where minors are sexually abused, the perpetrators are close relatives and the case may not take off as they prefer not to testify against a family member. If a breadwinner is the main suspect, the victim may be forced to withdraw the case after an out-of-court settlement at the family level. This is a challenge as we are not acting to end the abuse on young girls by relatives,’’ she added.
Chiringa further said that some criminal cases die a ‘natural death’ due to a lack of understanding of court procedures.
‘‘During Covid 19 lockdowns, going to court to make follow up remained a challenge and it has affected the wheels of justice among affected girls,’’ she explained.
To its credit, AWET has reached an average of 13 500 people so far with awareness on child marriage, gender-based violence, and assaults mostly with women as victims.