By Professor Matodzi
Harare, January 21, 2016 – Human rights campaigners have described as revolutionary and bold, Wednesday’s ban on early child marriages imposed by the country’s Constitutional Court.
The apex court outlawed the marriage of children below 18 and ruled that Section 22 (1) of the Marriage Act Chapter (5:11) was inconsistent with Section 78 (1) of the Constitution which sets 18 years as the minimum age of marriage in Zimbabwe.
The ConCourt, established in 2013, ordered that “no person in Zimbabwe may enter into any marriage, including an unregistered customary law union or any other union, including one arising out of religion or a religious rite, before attaining the age of 18”.
The ruling came after two former child brides Loveness Mudzuru aged 19 and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi (18), in 2014 challenged the constitutionality of rampant child marriages.
They cited as respondents, Justice Minister Emmerson Mnangagwa, then Women’s Affairs and Gender Minister Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, and the Attorney General.
The two argued, through Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR) practitioner Tendai Biti, that since the country’s supreme law which came into force May 2013, pegs childhood at below 18, no child therefore can lawfully marry.
The Irene Petras-led ZLHR described the landmark ruling as prudent.
“ZLHR welcomes this judicious judgment outlawing the practice of subjecting girl children to early marriages and having their fundamental rights infringed upon,” said the group, which has firmly stood for rights victims for two decades.
“The outlawing of this primitive practice is in line with international, regional and national efforts to end child marriages.”
The top legal defence group further lamented the potential risk child marriages posed on the affairs of young Zimbabweans, particularly girls, who elbowed off the country’s developmental prospects.
ZLHR challenged Zimbabwean authorities to develop strategies and action plans to raise awareness of and address the harmful impact of child marriages.
“Although the ruling is a victory and the fact that the practice of child marriages has been recognised and outlawed, a lot needs to be done in implementing it and educating Zimbabweans about the legal position so that everyone is aware of this position,” ZLHR said.
Real Open Opportunities for Transformation and Support (ROOTS), a non-profit making organisation which focuses on economic justice for young people, described the ConCourt ruling as groundbreaking.
“ROOTS welcomes this judgement which comes as a milestone in the campaign to end child marriages and the protection of the rights of children, specifically young girls who remain the main victims of this scourge in society,” ROOTS said in a statement.
Not to be missed were several other rights lawyers, among them David Coltart and Arnold Tsunga, both former MPs, commended Biti for the “excellent victory”.
Tsunga, who is Africa Regional Programme of the International Commission of Jurists director, said is the ruling was “another layer of progressive jurisprudence” emerging from Zimbabwean courts since the May 2013 adoption of a new governance charter.
Zimbabwe Civic Education Trust executive director, Gladys Hlatshwayo, said the ban on child brides was a “significant victory”.
Biti, on his part, said the ruling was revolutionary.
“It’s an amazing judgment. The court has passed a revolutionary judgment for women, girls and children. The court should be congratulated for that,” said Biti, who is also opposition PDP leader.
“I am very pleased to be part of this great history. Parliament should have done this 36 years ago. It has taken a bold decision by a bold court. Marriages before 18 years are no longer possible. This is a revolutionary ruling since the birth of the Constitutional Court in 2013.”
The application was jointly sponsored by ZLHR and Veritas, a local NGO with interest on legal issues.