By Sij Ncube
HARARE, JUNE 16 – As Zimbabwe on Tuesday joined the rest of the continent to commemorate the international Day of the African Child critics of President Robert Mugabe’s administration say the comatose economy coupled with the commercialisation of basic education is promoting an upsurge in child marriages in the country.
This year’s commemorations were held under the theme: “25 Years after the Adoption of the African Children’s Charter: Accelerating our Collective Efforts to End Child Marriages in Africa.”
The Day of the African Child was adopted in 1991 by the then Organisation of African Unity in memory of the June 16, 1976 Soweto Uprising and massacre of school children who were calling for the observance of their education rights under the racists apartheid regime.
The annual commemorations now generally enjoins the African Union member states to affirm their commitment to the educational rights of the continent’s children and this year it coincided with Mugabe chairing the continental bloc.
But surprisingly Mugabe’s administration recently introduced examinations fees for Grade Seven pupils, a first for the country since independence from Britain in 1980, and also subsequently increased the examinations for Ordinary level candidates.
Human rights activists view the new fees as a continued marginalisation of children from poor communities, adding that the development has the adverse effects of sparking alarming school drop-outs, particularly the girl child, who might be forced into early marriage.
To all intents and purposes this seemingly commercialisation of basic education is seen as a gross violation of Zimbabwe’s constitution which guarantees myriad child rights, specifically under Amendment 20, sections 75 and 81.
Okay Machisa, the national director of Zimbabwe Human Rights Association (ZimRights), says a cursory look at the prevailing socio-economic conditions in Zimbabwe shows that forcing parents to pay basic costs for primary education is unsustainable as they are also battling to put food on the table.
“In line with this year’s (of the Day of the African Child) theme, depravation of the right to education has a contributory factor to incidences of child marriages in Zimbabwe and on the continent,” said Machisa, adding that Zimbabwe as the current AU chair should lead by example by protecting the rights of children, including the right to education.
According to the UNICEF State of World Children’s Report (2015), in Zimbabwe, 4% of women aged 20-24 years were first married or in union before they were 15 years old and 31% of women were first married or were in union before there were 18.
The same UNICEF report indicates Mashonaland Central, has the highest rate of child marriages at 50% closely followed by Mashonaland West with 42%, Masvingo 39% Mashonaland East 36%, Midlands 31%, Manicaland 30%, Matabeleland North 27%, Harare 19%, Matabeleland South 18% and Bulawayo 10%.
Justice for Children, an advocacy for child’s rights which vigorously campaigns against child marriages, says the UNICEF report results indicate a serious problem in Zimbabwe which is being perpetuated by several factors such as poverty, low levels of education, “which are directly correlated with higher rates of child marriage which can also be viewed as unhealthy coping mechanisms for girls trying to escape the cycle of poverty.”
It adds: “The most marginalised families have very little resources to support healthy alternatives for girls, such as education, or even to feed and clothe them, and economic gains to families in the form of a bride price (lobola) may act as further motivation for child marriage.”
Takavafira Zhou, an educationist who lecturers at Great Zimbabwe University, says the government should have a re-think on the commercialisation of basic education, noting that the payment of examination fees also comes at a time when industries are collapsing and most communities have experienced poor harvests thereby incapacitating many parents.
“The government surely need to mellow down to a more constructive approach permeable to reason and facts rather than adopting and intransigent and irresponsible approach that would alienate the majority students from poor families from accessing education,” said Zhou.