By Blessing Vava
Loveness Mudzuru (19) and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi (18) became celebrities overnight, after challenging the Customary Marriages Act, a Zimbabwean law which was silent on the minimum age for marriage.
Zimbabwe’s Customary Marriages Act had no minimum age for marriage, while the Marriage Act, which governs monogamous marriages, states that girls under 16 cannot marry without the written consent of the justice minister.
Before this judgement Zimbabwe had conflicting legal provisions on the minimum age for marriage. The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act made it a criminal offense for anyone to promise a girl under 18 in marriage or to force a girl or woman to enter into a marriage against her will.
The Act said any adult man who has sexual relations with a willing child between ages 12 and 15 will be charged of statutory rape arguing that children in this age group are considered too immature to make informed decisions about their sexual behaviour. The contradiction was that if the person is married to a child under 16, having sexual relations with the spouse is not statutory rape.
On the 20th of January 2016, Zimbabwe’s Deputy Chief Justice Luke Malaba and eight other Constitutional Court judges outlawed child marriages, and struck off section 22(1) of the Marriage Act, which, for decades, had allowed children under the age of 18 years to formally get married.
This has been lauded as a paradigm altering victory for the former child brides, their Civil Society backers organisations like ROOTS, Veritas (who initiated the court challenge) and other critics of the law. I’m still holding on to the confetti for now.
The court case was triggered by the escalation of child marriages especially in Zimbabwe’s rural areas, which has negatively impacted the lives of young girls, robbing them of their future, and the right to education. Child marriage, defined as a formal marriage or informal union before age 18, is a reality for both boys and girls, although girls are disproportionately the most affected.
UNICEF says in Sub-Saharan Africa, 41% of girls are getting married before the age of 18 years, while in Zimbabwe, one in three girls are married before the age of 18. The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) report has revealed that 31% of Zimbabwean girls under the age of 18 were victims of forced marriages with 15% of them getting married at the age of 15.
In Zimbabwe, as in many other African countries, cultural practices are often blamed as the driving force behind child marriages, a position which I consider an act of denial that does not help matters at all. ‘Traditionalists’ view attempts to halt the practice as attempts at cultural imperialism. However, I think that this is simply a deliberate attempt to avoid a truthful diagnosis of the real challenge that is escalating child marriages, among many other social ills. Poverty is the underlying factor that triggers child marriages in Africa.
We can no longer deny that child marriages are manifestations of socio-economic and political turmoil. The impending drought over much of Southern Africa only exacerbates the situation, at least in Zimbabwe.
A 2013 report by UNICEF titled, Ending child marriages: Progress and prospects, notes that there is a substantial gap in the prevalence of child marriage between the poorest and richest: females in the poorest quintile are 2.5 times more likely to marry in childhood than those living in the wealthiest quintile. Further, the UNICEF report gives an interesting analysis of other developing countries outside Africa where child marriages are rife, notably the Dominican Republic.
The report observed that at least half of the poorest women entered into their first marriage or union at about age 17 compared to age 21 among the richest women. According to statistics, one third of girls in the developing world are married before the age of 18, and 1 in 9 are married before the age of 15. Africa is home to 15 out of 20 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.
A research conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium-Zimbabwe and the University of Zimbabwe’s Centre of Applied Science, found that poverty makes young girls more vulnerable, and 65% of rural girls are married or impregnated before the age of 19.
This has been the trend in Zimbabwe, as most rural areas are hard hit by poverty, lack adequate information, and depend on education and health delivery systems that are in a poor state. Droughts have made it worse as they continue exposing communities lack of food and proper standards of living, thereby triggering ills like child marriages. In most of these poverty stricken communities fathers marry off their children prematurely, or at times young girls, seeking economic refuge, elope to potential husbands.
This is mostly done by those men who are successful in such communities, and that success is often measured by the number of cows, polygamy is rife and hence they take advantage to marry young girls from vulnerable families. According to a UNFPA report, girls may be viewed as an economic burden, as a commodity, or a means for settling familial debts or disputes, or securing social, economic or political alliances. Customary requirements such as dowries or bride prices may also enter into families’ considerations, especially in communities where families can give a lower dowry for younger brides.
Zimbabwe is currently facing a serious drought, worsened by the El Niño weather phenomenon which has also affected South Africa, Malawi and Zambia, destroying crops and livestock as a result. As a result, Zimbabwe’s government has estimated that about four million Zimbabweans are in need of food aid. I visited some of the affected areas and was saddened by the dire situation villagers are facing because of the drought. Most of them are now selling their livestock for very little amounts, in a bid to salvage something before the drought destroys everything.
Some of my relatives from the area narrated how the past two years have been the most difficult because of the drought and poverty. One headman, Ngwenyeni of Malipati village, also spoke about how poverty has driven a majority of the young girls into either early marriages or prostitution. When I asked if they were aware of the new court ruling, the Headman said it will be difficult to enforce because- as a result of the economic situation with the parents mostly involved in marrying off their children. During my visit, I was referred to a child bride, whose story seemingly justified why child marriages are persistent in the area.
The child bride, who only identified herself as Mercy, is 16 years old. She is married to a 22 year old man who also grew up in the same area and is already four months pregnant. Mercy was left in the custody of one her uncles in 2014, after her parents died of HIV/AIDS related illness. She was only in form 2 (grade 9).
Unfortunately she dropped out of school in 2015 and could not proceed, as the uncle told her that he had no money to pay for her fees. Mercy’s situation worsened in 2015, as food became scarce at her uncle’s homestead, where she lived with 8 other children. She opted to elope to her boyfriend, who later paid a bride price of two beasts to her uncle last year. Her story is no different from those of many of the young girls in that community.
With more than four million people in need of drought relief, Zimbabwe is likely going to face an upsurge in child marriages. Child marriage is also a strategy for economic survival as families marry off their daughters at an early age to reduce their economic burden. Already the government of Zimbabwe has no clue on how it is going to address the drought situation and provide relief for its people.
Therefore, it would be foolhardy to think that child marriages will be eliminated just by educating the communities or rather passing laws that bar such practices, without tackling the fundamental issue, which is that of poverty. The fight against child marriages is an enormous task that should start by combating the root causes which can, in turn, be addressed by ending government corruption that has collapsed many economies in Africa. The uneven distribution of national wealth has left some communities underdeveloped, thereby exacerbating the poverty cycle.
From the above, it is clear that there is a relationship between such practices like child marriages and poverty in Africa. In reality poverty creates a state of misery and frustration that leads to immoral and illegal solutions.
Fortunately, the African Union has raised its stakes in fighting child marriages. It is commendable that in May 2014, the African Union launched the first-ever Campaign to End Child Marriage in Africa. The African Union’s Agenda 2063, a fifty-year vision for the development of the continent, identified stopping child marriages as part of its top priorities. However success is only possible if we focus more on addressing the socio-economic factors, tackling issues like wars, political instability, the rule of law and democracy.
The very first step in eliminating poverty and tactically reducing armed conflicts in Africa is good governance and leadership. African governments should deal with issues of prioritising basic services such as education and health, specifically in the rural areas, attention should also go to solving unemployment, economically empowering communities especially the young people, and providing social welfare to citizens. Education enhances productivity and creativity. If these issues are addressed then the fight against child marriages can be achieved. Governments should also develop mechanisms that broaden the scope of choices for orphaned young girls.