Regional courts speeding up justice delivery on child marriages

By Nhau Mangirazi

KAROI– The Zimbabwean Government’s establishment of regional courts to handle sexual abuse, rape and child marriages related cases is paying off as more suspects are being brought to book, and sentencing is now done quicker than in previous years.

The regional courts are located within the provincial courts, but have a specific task of handling cases relating to child abuse, rape and child marriage.

There is one regional court in each of the country ten provinces that have victim friendly facilities and devices such as television screens and toys, among others.

One such a fully-fledged regional court is in Karoi town in Hurungwe district, Mashonaland West Province.

The regional court is making positive impact where judgements are passed timeously, and where some suspects have been jailed between 12 years and 20 years.

In Karoi, at least five cases had  judgements delivered by regional magistrate Solomon Jemwa jailing suspects between 12 and twenty years with State prosecutor Temptation Maromo calling on court to hand stiffer sentences to ‘‘send home strong warning to would be suspects abusing girls some as little as five years,’

Emelda Vhiriri, Acting Director for Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support (ROOTS), a local girl child rights organisation welcomes the Government move saying it’s a step-in ending child marriage.

‘‘The courts will operate quickly, effectively and efficiently. With regional courts, rape and child sexual abuse cases will be reduced. Capacity building is critical to properly handle all child abuse cases as it is about quality of service and not quantity of courts,’’ she says.

She explains that there are laws and policies that contradict each other, leaving a loophole for child marriages to persist.

‘‘For example, the Customary Marriages Act does not specify a minimum age of marriage and Age of Consent is still at 16 years. Constitutional court ruling of 2016 which ROOTS spearheaded together with various stakeholders led to a ban of child marriages,’’ says Vhiriri.

She however, says there is need for national, regional and international support to end child marriages.

‘‘We must eradicate harmful societal norms. Leaders and various stakeholders must speak of positive change,” says Vhiriri.

Her sentiments were echoed by Vusumuzi Sifile, Knowledge Management and Communications Manager at Panos Institute Southern Africa, who says stakeholders including media and civil society must raise awareness of harmful social practices that are hindering efforts to eradicate child marriage.

“We believe the establishment and operationalisation of national and regional courts will speed up efforts to address child marriage. There is need for increased citizens awareness of the existence of the regional courts, and how they work. This places a huge responsibility on the media to sensitise community members about the harmful effects of child marriages, and how interventions such as the regional courts are helping to address them,” says Sifile.

He adds that Panos is working with journalists and media houses across Southern Africa to equip them to play a prominent role in raising awareness about the harmful effects of child marriage, and how different stakeholders can effectively address them.

“In partnership with Plan and other stakeholders, we are working with media practitioners in a number of countries in the region to produce in-depth content on child marriage, highlighting legal and policy gaps. We are pleased with the establishment of the regional courts because they are bringing the issues closer to the communities, making it possible for cases to be heard and determined on time,” adds Sifile.

Fair manner

Headman Gandanzara Tapfuma Nyathi of Manicaland admits that decentralisation of regional courts is helping as reported cases are heard on time, reducing transport costs.

‘‘Cases are handled in a fair manner than in a family set up that promotes child marriages vice,’ says Nyathi.

Regional uniformity

Chinga Govhati from Justice for Children, a local Non-Government Organisation that fights for Children rights urges that regional courts work effectively if there are laws that can be interpreted by the courts.

She explains that the starting point is coming up with laws that penalise child-marriage by Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) and Africa Union as regional bodies so that it becomes uniform regionally.

‘‘Member states including Zimbabwe must start to use regional strategies already in place by SADC model law on ending child-marriage.

‘This will enhance better approach than these piecemeal approaches by individual states,”’ she says.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, African Union (AU) Goodwill Ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage concurs.

For example, she says, that the AU adopted the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child a treaty that is binding on Zimbabwe and all other member States.

‘‘This is part of international law which countries are expected to integrate into national laws.

‘‘In terms of the local or regional courts, they should comply with the laws of the country under the national constitution, law enforcement, judiciary that are conversant with the African treaties. These should equally evoke them because Zimbabwe is a party to these instruments,’ says

Gumbonzvanda, is also the founding director of Rozaria Memorial Trust that empowers girls in Mashonaland Central.

She adds that Zimbabwe played a pivotal role in moving the motion, debate and adoption of the SADC Model Law on Ending Child Marriage.

‘‘This is best practice globally where other regional blocks on the continent has such a model law which addresses a range of issues from justice, health, education, social protection and rebuilding the lives of those who experienced child marriage. While this is not a binding document, it offers powerful premise for our work as a country and such model law could be useful reference as the country finalises and presence the Marriage Bill to parliament and other subsidiary laws aligned with the constitution,’ explains Gumbonzvanda who is an authoritative voice for girl child rights globally.

Commitment to end child marriages

Gumbonzvanda explains that African Union Common Position on Ending Child Marriage is a declaration and commitment of Heads of States that must support campaign to end child marriage.

‘The work in the local and regional courts and communities in Zimbabwe are therefore in essence part of the implementation of these commitments. The Zimbabwe National Action Plan to ending child marriage developed after the National launch, as well as the Zimbabwe Gender Commission’s own strategic document on roles to ending child marriage offers the institutional parameters and guidance for such local efforts. What is critical is to have high, deep, consistent political will to have direct impact and deliver justice in communities,’ she says.

Gumbonzvanda hails from Mashonaland Central province that has highest prevalence rate of child marriages pegged at 50 percent.

‘As a country we have relevant policies but lack in quality resourcing, monitoring and accountability. The negative social and cultural norms are not in line with constitution of Zimbabwe. A hard line must be taken against parents or institutions who hide behind culture or religion to sexually exploit and rape of our children,’ she explains.

‘It is therefore critical to make progress with traditional and religious leaders as champions to reclaim true value and essence of African custom and religion respecting every child being one’s child,’ adds Gumbonzvanda.

Vhiriri concludes that real effort to end child marriages must be at community through behaviour change among men, women and the girls themselves and provide integrated referral pathways for children at risk of child marriage.

Regional models

Vhiriri admits that although Zimbabwe has made strides through courts, there is need to learn from other African countries in ending child marriages traditionally.

‘Zimbabwe should learn from countries like Zambia and Malawi, where traditional chiefs have taken a strong stance that include nullifying marriages involving under-age girl. It is a positive move that is worth adopting,’ she concludes.

There is hope that more regional courts will be opened in few years to deal with the vice of child marriages.