ON JANUARY 2 this year, three days after giving birth to a baby girl, 14-year-old Delight Masomeke died from labour related complications.
This was shortly after she had been married to an older man — in violation of Zimbabwean law, which makes it illegal to get married under the age of 18. The circumstances of Masomeke’s death are similar to that of Anne Machaya in July 2021.
Machaya, who was 15 at the time of her death, had been forced to abandon her schooling as she had been promised by her parents to a 26-year-old man, Hatirarami Momberume. Machaya’s parents, along with their son-inlaw, would eventually be arrested.
These are no isolated incidents. According to a study released by the United Nations Children’s Fund, from 2015 to 2020, Zimbabwe recorded an adolescent maternity rate of 86 per 1 000 girls aged 15 to 19 — nearly twice the global average.
According to the country’s statistics agency, a third of Zimbabwean girls are married by the time they turn 18. In comparison, just two percent of boys get married before they are 18. Child rights activist Sandra Muzama said safety nets that safeguard people from harsh economic factors should be strengthened regularly in order to curb child marriages.
This is especially true in communities that rely on farming. Increased community coping mechanisms and resilience would, Muzama said, “decrease the marrying off of girls for economic resources and also decrease eloping among girls as there would be participants and beneficiaries in these projects”.
In the Mzingwane district, acting district development coordinator Siphathisiwe Mlotshwa said campaigns against child marriage are appealing to parents to not enforce harmful cultural and religious practices. “Due to poverty, parents are encouraging their young daughters to get married to older men. Parents need to be educated about the importance of allowing their girls to continue with their education,” said Mlotshwa.
In 2016, human rights lawyer and Citizens Coalition for Change vice-president Tendai Biti successfully lobbied for the review of the age of consent from 16 to 18 in a landmark ruling by Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court.
“It is vital that we protect children, especially girls. This ruling will not stop child abuse, but it will mitigate it and act as a deterrent,” Biti said. Despite the new law, arrests and prosecutions of offenders are rare: authorities and politicians have often been accused of turning a blind eye to paedophilia, particularly when it occurs in religious sects, which often have a lot of political influence.
Child rights activist Bonlat Machiha sees a pattern of abuse in the Apostolic faith, with some sects allowing older congregants to marry girls as young as 12. These marriages are often polygamous. “What is most painful is that when these children get pregnant they are not allowed to go to hospitals and this causes a number of deaths, especially when the girls have complications in giving birth.” Machiha added that arrests are rare.
“This just shows that there is a need to enforce laws that are available so that girls can be protected.” In the absence of effective prosecution, the best solution is better education, according to the World Bank. In a 2017 report, it argued that child marriage would be reduced by 64% if every girl received 12 years of education.
“Educated individuals have more self-confidence and a better ability to make their own choice, as well as to make their voices heard.” At schools, girls would learn about the illegality of child marriages, it said, adding: “Indeed, one cannot claim a right if one is not aware of its existence.”—– M&G