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Child marriages on the rise

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©️ ZIMBABWE’S extended lockdown has resulted in an increase in child marriages across the country, a women’s  rights activist has said.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced a national lockdown on March 27 to help curb the spread of the deadly coronavirus pandemic, which has killed over 350 000 people across the world and affected nearly five million.

Veronica Nhemachena, the Midlands Aids Service Organisation chief executive, said while the lockdown has affected education worldwide, it is now threatening to undo years of work to improve female literacy and reduce the dropout rate among girl students in Zimbabwe.

“During the lockdown there are food shortages, money is running out for many families, and daughters have the least priority,” she told an audience attending an online discussion on public finance management organised by the Zimbabwe Coalition of Debt and Development (Zimcodd).

“We have so far recorded seven confirmed cases of child marriages in Kwekwe and we are still tallying numbers from other surrounding areas in Midlands.”

Nhemachena said there were fears some people would use lockdowns to conceal child marriages, but she expected the spike would come later as families struggle with the economic fallout.

The latest development comes after the World Vision recently indicated that at least four million girls are at risk of child marriage in the next two years because of the new coronavirus pandemic.

The global charity said deepening poverty caused by the loss of livelihoods is likely to drive many families to marry off their daughters early.

“When you have any crisis like a conflict, disaster or pandemic rates of child marriage go up,” Erica Hall, World Vision’s child marriage expert, said last week.

“If we don’t start thinking about how to prevent it now it will be too late. We can’t wait for the health crisis to pass first.”

Campaigners said the risks were exacerbated by the fact that schools were closed and organisations working to combat child marriage were finding it harder to operate during lockdowns.

The pandemic is also making it more difficult for girls to access reproductive health services which could lead to a rise in teenage pregnancies and increased pressure to marry.

Worldwide, an estimated 12 million girls are married every year before the age of 18 – nearly one girl every three seconds.

A United Nations report last month predicted the pandemic could lead to an extra 13 million child marriages over the next decade.

Meanwhile, Nhemachena said there were high chances that some girls will not be able to go back to school after the Covid-19 pandemic induced lockdown.

“Schools protect girls. When schools shut the risks of marriage become very heightened. Even post-Covid it is likely many girls will not go back to school, which is very scary. We need to make sure they do,” she added.

Tobias Guzura, a Gweru resident, blamed the government for failing to provide social nets resulting in an increase of social ills such as theft, prostitution and early marriages.

“The most unfortunate situation confronting us is that we are caught between a rock and a hard place. It’s either you adhere to lockdown regulations and be safe from Covid-19. However, with the high level of informalisation in our economy adherence to lockdown regulations implies death from hunger,” he said.

Although the government promised to give out $300 to millions of vulnerable people to help them survive during the lockdown, Gracia Mundandi said the death of a toddler who succumbed to hunger in Midlands shows that authorities have failed to provide for citizens.

“It is disheartening that we have a child dying of hunger at any point in time. This goes to show that there has been a gap in identifying who is vulnerable and who is not even before this pandemic. From Nozipho’s story, this house had gone for a while without water because of failure to pay bills. This woman should have been a beneficiary not only of social welfare but other partners. It’s our duty as the civil society to chip in where government fails,” she said.

 

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