Religious Norms Trap Girls Into Early Child Marriages

By Nhau Mangirazi

Karuru, October 26, 2016 – THIRTY-THREE year old Rumbidzai Matara looks older than her age and deeply depressed as she narrates what is troubling her soul.

Draped in a white dress, she is a member of Johanne Masowe apostolic sect in Karuru area under Chief Kazangarare situated about 65 kilometers north of Karoi town.

Matara is number three wife in a polygamous union where they are five wives married to a man in his late sixties.

The latest two are aged 14 and 16 years making them the same age with her daughter, now expecting to give birth. 

“I am not happy at all as my daughter is still too young to give birth. As women, we cannot decide on behalf of our children. We are suffering in silence over the abuse,” she says, without mincing her words.

She is among a few members who open up against their church doctrine that has seen many young girls married off by their parents in the sect.

Matara, referred to as maMoyo, her totem, is well known for her critical but lonely voice against the vices of early marriages among people in her community here.

Common trend

The above scenario is a common trend among hundreds of girls married off annually in Africa including in Zimbabwe where religion holds a big constituency in society. 

According to the Research Advocacy Unit, RAU, titled Married Too Soon, child marriages among the Johanne Marange sect which constitutes 1.2 million members in the country, result when ‘… the Holy Spirit directs marriage of young girls to older men, giving away their right to freedom of choice’.

Standing up

However, some members of the sect are now standing up against the belief that lures many girls into premature marriages.

In Midlands province, 500 women from different Apostolic sects held a campaign against child marriages.

Dubbed Apostolic Women Unite against Child Marriages, the campaign aims to end this common trend affecting mainly the girl child.

National coordinator, of the campaign, Tendayi Gudo said they want to spruce up their image.

“The Apostolic sect has been associated with bad publicity on child marriages, child abuse …child marriages violate the fundamental human rights of girls and boys but affects girls more denying them their right to consensual marriages as well as to education,” she said.

Major concern – MP Mahoka

Hurungwe East Member of Parliament Sarah Mahoka whose area has members of the sect in Zvimonja under Chief Mjinga admitted that child marriages have been a major concern for her and threatens those involved in perpetuating the practice that they will face the full wrath of law.

“We have been advocating for Vapostori to get their act together and shun child marriages at all costs. Marriageable age is 18 years and we are not mincing our words although some still think politicians will stand for them once they are caught on the other side of the law. Tirikuti ngavarege vanasikana vabve zera vasativatanga dzimba dzavo meaning they must let girls to be fully grown up women before they are married,” said Mahoka.

Health risks

The RAU report adds that early marriages are detrimental to health and the wellbeing of the girl child.

“Child marriages can also result in bonded labour or enslavement, commercial sexual exploitation and violence against the victims. Because they cannot abstain from sex or insist on condom use, child brides are often exposed to such serious health risks as premature pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, and, increasingly, HIV/AIDS,” reads the report. 

However, Kariba rural-based Junior Member of Parliament; Mitchel Sinamaravana challenged traditional and religious leaders to stop child marriages that impact negatively on girl’s future.

Harmful experiences

Sinamaravana, of Msampakaruma High School said it is unfortunate that Mashonaland West is among the worst affected provinces.

“Poverty and traditional beliefs are some of the harmful experiences we are suffering as girls forcing the majority to drop out of school at early ages. I am therefore appealing to all stakeholders including enforcement agencies to cooperate. Traditional leaders are abusing girls when they accept that they must be married even as young as 14 years.

“This must stop as we gear for 25 Years after the Adoption of African Charter to end child marriages. It our accelerated push to end child marriages. I am challenging traditional leaders to stamp authority on the campaign. Child marriage is an enemy within the communities. We must reduce the 42 percent that the province accounts for as the second affected in the country. We hope that everyone will take this responsibility and shift against the worst results against your own children being married early here,” she said.

Ironically, Kariba district was the focal point for American scholar Ann Cotton in 1993 when she started Campaign for Child Education, Camfed, after she felt sorry for mostly the girl child in the remote area who remained neglected but her efforts are spurned by current economic challenges, poverty, religion and cultural norms, among other driving forces.

Sexual abuse

Camfed regional director Angeline Murimirwa that covers Malawi, Zambia and Tanzania says perpetrators are usually close relatives.

“It is unfortunate that some perpetrators are girls’ guardians including teachers and male relatives. Naturally, girls face sexual abuse forcing them to drop out of school,” said Murimirwa.

Many women like maMoyo pin their hopes on strides made to give girls a right to a better future without cultural and religious norms that fuel child marriages and silent abuse.

Zimbabwe joined the AU Campaign to end child marriages in mid-2015.

The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development with support from UNICEF, UNWOMEN, UNFPA, the Child Rights and Women’s Rights Coalitions has been working on a National Action Plan to End Child Marriages and its related communication for development activities. The Constitutional Court ruling of January 2016 has been an impetus to move the agenda forward.

 

All these efforts are part of the global campaign to end child marriages.