Empowered communities reduce child marriages in rural Zimbabwe

By Nhau Mangirazi

MUREHWA– Headman Fungai Ruguva (60) from Makwengura village is a traditional leader in Murehwa rural outpost about 75 kilometres northeast of Harare standing up against child marriages here.

Ruguva leads Egmont Trust Grant in Murehwa 5, a community-based organisation that discusses topical issues on gender and reducing child marriages openly.

It is making positive strides for communities around the remote parts of the country.

Ruguva says, ‘‘Our strategy is to engage men and boys to be champions against child marriages. We do this through Community Development Committees. The inclusion of boys and men to fight child marriages plays a critical role within Mashonaland East. The gender component if not fully addressed, child marriages will continue to wreak havoc as blame game will supersede any efforts made,’’

Egmont Trust Grant is among several groups including Martha Nekati’s Seke Rural and Chihota led by Regina Svisva and all are pushing Shamwari Yemwanasikana (SYS) agenda against child marriages here.

SYS was founded by Ekenia Chifamba in 2013.

SYS is a brainchild of Chifamba who faced reality of girl child abuse and domestic violence in Chitungwiza where she grew up.

She says this prompted her to take action as an activist going beyond ‘rhetoric’ but transformed it into action.

Her organisation is among Girls Not Brides Zimbabwe (a network of organisations working to end child marriages in Zimbabwe)

Of late other organisations were only focusing on girls alone, neglecting everyone surrounding girl child. SYS approach is different by placing the girl child at the centre of protection fully supported by the community, institutions and policies,’ she explains.

Chaka Ruzvidzo, SYS program manager says their projects are aimed at empowering community voices as local initiatives.

‘We bring men and boys together tasking them to understand their crucial role in ending child marriages,’ he explains.

‘‘We do this as through males and boy’s sessions that helps them to be ‘agents of change’ as they marry or marry off their children or sisters,’ says Ruzvidzo.

He adds that empowerment of girl child in homes, schools, and community “emancipate them from abuse’’

Ruzvidzo explains that village heads like Ruguva are coming out in the open to candidly challenge men who marry or marry off their children.

‘Ruguva is among those heading the implementation of Egmont Trust Grant where both men and women carry out economic empowerment projects to fight poverty that remains driver of high prevalence of child marriages,’ he says.

Villagers here use Theatre for Development inclusive of Human Rights Education in Seke rural to sensitise the community on ending child marriages.

‘Both men and women in Seke had an appreciation that they needed not to have a blame game if they wanted to root out this practice collectively,’ he adds.

In Chihota, SYS focuses on girl child led efforts in promoting gender equality.

‘This approach strengthened the response rate of the whole community,’ says Svisva a 60-year old grandmother.

Ruzvidzo adds that SYS through its Girls Protection and Support Services department that operates 24 hours a day, it has managed to assist over 5 000 girls who survived various forms of abuse in Mashonaland East since 2014.

‘They have access justice or seek redress whenever their rights were violated,’ he adds.

It is done through provision of psychosocial support, police, hospital and court escorts, and court familiarization sessions with abuse survivors. Whenever these girls require further expertise, we refer to other organisations which have legal expertise, safe shelters or required services. We also ensure that we adhere with the government procedures such the case management system and referral pathway as stated in the multi-sectoral protocol in dealing with Sexual Violence cases,’ explains Ruzvidzo.

SYS is also Focal Point for the World’s Children’s Prize for the Rights of the Child (WCP) program in Zimbabwe.

The program reached over 250 000 in 2017 throughout Zimbabwe who participated and trained to be Child Rights Ambassadors, standing up for their rights.

Child marriage ambassadors are selected among girls who want to spread the word of their wellbeing and rights.

‘We select those who are community role models in girls rights and understand why early marriages is not good for them,’ says Ruzvidzo.

Interventions worth it-Chifamba

Chifamba explains that Child Rights Ambassadors are trained on their rights under United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

‘This affords them opportunity to exercise their right, liberated from all forms of exploitation and the right to protection which will see to it that they are not married at an early age. We help on Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) education through Dandaro Revasikana a girl’s club to understand consequences that come about after indulgence in unsafe sex which consequently forces them into marriages.

We also have advocacy efforts through petitions and awareness campaigns in collaboration with other partner organisations. Girls petitioned the Ministry of Justice through 100 signatures for the 100 days in office to Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi to expedite the process of the harmonization of laws that speak on ending child marriages especially the draft Marriages Bill,’

Chifamba adds that community dialogues are done to engage everyone in understanding importance of girl child so that she is not forced into an early marriage by the family.SYS escorts girls who have been raped or forced into sexual activities to the hospital, court, police.

‘We also provide psycho-social support and refer them to safe shelters,’ adds Ruzvidzo.

Ruvugo explains that traditional leaders and communities provide ‘safety nets’ to ensure that anyone who commits or intends to marry a child is dealt with.

Chiefs as custodians of culture and tradition are influential figures whose buy in and voice is audible to influence whole communities to take collective action in curbing child marriages. They ensure that no one abuses children particularly girls in the name of marriage as they will act as conduits of information dissemination and justice delivery,’ he adds.Panos Southern Africa public health program manager Mamemokatsane Khati concurs that traditional leaders have an influence to change the customs that sometimes fuel child marriage.

She says, ‘‘If traditional leaders understand the consequences of child marriages as health or human rights factor where there are greater benefits of abstaining from early marriages, they are at a better position to address some of the social and cultural factors to child marriage,’ says Khati.

Chifamba concludes that it is crucial to bring both sexes to the task of taking collective efforts in curbing child marriages.

‘Locals know problems affecting them and they will also come up with local solutions that address their calamities,’’ says Chifamba.

However, she admits that sadly, current laws are not in harmony as the Constitutional Court ruling of 16 January 2016.

It is not enough to incriminate perpetrators of this heinous crime and at the same time protect girls. Many laws pertaining children’s rights are not aligned to the constitution and as such the practice remains rampant. Customary Marriages Act does not specify the minimum age of marriage, on the other hand the age of sexual consent is 16 and the court ruling is saying marry at 18 then it exposes children mostly girls to sex predators who in turn marry children to cover their tracks, adds Chifamba.

‘As an organisation we have managed to lobby the Minister of Justice through the girls by being part of the coalitions that came together to unite organisations that deal with ending child marriage, through “Inclusivity, Exclusively for the Girl Child” project for the next three years.

Ruguva admits that the community involvement is helping in fighting child marriages around here.