Despite the existence of numerous international and regional human rights laws and conventions against child marriage, it still remains a widely ignored violation of the health and development rights of girls and young women.
The scourge is prevalent in Zimbabwe, with recorded statistics of 34% of girls nationwide getting married before the age of 18.
In Mashonaland Central Province, child marriage is ranked at 50%, and this makes it the highest in the country.
Despite the various international, continental, regional, and domestic legislation that prohibit child marriages, the practice is still rampant in rural Zimbabwe.
However, three traditional Chiefs in the Mashonaland Province, are taking a stand against the act.
Chief Bushu of Shamva, Chief Nyamaropa of Madziwa and Chief Mangwende from Mutoko came together to formulate by-laws that are meant to strengthen efforts made in promoting the rights of children at the grassroots level, to ensure that children complete school, and effectively partake in the country’s economic development processes.
The Zimbabwe Constitution Amendment (No. 20), Act of 2013 recognize traditional institutions as integral to the identity and institutional framework of governance.
The application of customary law and principles and practices is to be exercised in furtherance of the constitution and its values.
With support from the Rozaria Memorial Trust (RMT), the Chiefs came up with a handbook on marital practices which are in tandem with the constitution.
Some of the provisions of the by-laws seek to do away with traditional practices like Chiramu, an antiquated practice of uncles or brothers in law touching nieces and sisters in law in suggestive and often inappropriate ways.
The by-laws also castigate the culture of Chimutsa Mapfihwa, (the practice of giving young woman or girl to a widow or to a sister or aunt’s husband because of infertility) as well as virginity testing, which is still rife in some cultures.
Speaking to 263Chat on the launch of the bylaws in Murewa recently, Chairperson of the Drafting Team on ending Child marriages, Tichafa Chibanda said during the outreach programs, there was a consensus on abolishing bad cultural practices which are affecting children’s rights.
“We were trying to find ways to stop these bad cultural practices and there was consensus that there is an urgent need to abolish them. The Chiramu and Chimutsa Mapfihwa practices among others, were castigated.
“We also looked at other issues like hunger in homes and we agreed that it will be a punishable offence if there is a homestead which is found without growing maize meal for sustenance,” he said.
A variety of reasons that include, poverty, protection of girls, fear of loss of virginity before marriage and related family honour, and the provision of stability during unstable social periods, lack of education, and discriminatory customary and religious norms are suggested as significant factors in determining a girl’s risk of becoming married as a child.
Denial of education and health leads to denial of other rights such as the right to work and right to life among other rights.
The right to exercise choice in relation to a spouse has also long been recognized in human rights law as well.
Chibanda said it was widely agreed that child marriage increases the prevalence of infectious diseases, malnutrition, high child mortality rates, low life expectancy for women, and an inter-generational cycle of child abuse.
He added that there is need to empower young people so that they can make informed decisions and not be susceptible to societal expectations.
“We envisage to empower children at an early stage, giving them business knowledge while they are still young will make them understand that there is life outside being married off, they can also have the power to say no when these things are being done to them
“By so doing, their chances of being married off early are close to none because they will be in a better position,” Chibanda said.
Chief Bushu also noted that children are often lured by illegal miners who prey on them and entice them with monetary gifts.
“We have gold in this area and that has become a big problem for us because at a time most children are lured by mukorokoza. They are promised heaven on earth and in the end, they get married at a very early stage. In turn, they contract sexually transmitted infections and some drop out of school which leave them vulnerable to the harsh reality of the world,” he said
Young women who marry usually drop out of school and do not gain the knowledge and skills that can sustain life in the future.
They also cannot participate in decision-making in the family because of the unequal bargaining position and they are at risk of becoming victims of domestic violence.
Boys drop out of school too, but poverty and traditional gender roles have made it especially hard to convince parents to send and keep their daughters in school especially if they fall pregnant early on.
The African Charter on Democracy and Governance (ACDEG) adopted in 2007 by the African Union (AU) states that every child regardless of nationality, including refugees who often lack access to education, should fully participate in all economic and governance issues in a country.
Through article 8(2), the charter emphasises the need for states to adopt legislative and administrative measures that guarantee the rights of women, ethnic minorities, migrants, people with disabilities, refugees and displaced persons,and other marginalized and vulnerable social groups
Chief Bushu said it is, sadly, widely believed that marrying off a girl means one less mouth to feed, and it also means more gifts for the girl’s family, usually livestock, and a precious asset.
Dr Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, the African Union Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriage and Chief Executive of RMT, said her organisation has been supporting government efforts on ending child marriage by providing technical assistance in the development of bylaws on ending child marriage and protecting children who have experienced child marriage to the three Chiefs and beyond.
“Rozaria Memorial Trust recognizes that traditional leaders and cultural institutions play a critical role in the prevention of sexual abuse of children and especially in cases of child marriage.
“They also can play a role on access to justice and providing social support to survivors of child marriage,” she said.
She added that the bylaws will provide a categorical statement on which customary practices are banned or prohibited, and also send a clear message that culture and custom should not be used to justify an offence.
“In addition, the Chief’s courts are recognized by law in Zimbabwe and often they are inaccessible and unfriendly to children and survivors of child marriage. Most cases are handled from the interest of the parents and not that of the child.
“Therefore the bylaws enabled the transformation of customary courts from jurisdiction, procedures and penalties. We are very excited by Chief-Bushu and Nyamaropa’s initiative to establish special courts,” she told 263Chat recently.
Her RMT organisation in Murewa has been on a drive to provide safe and inter-generational spaces for girls into a positive platform for mentoring leadership and skills training for girls and young women.