By Byron Mutingwende
Members of the clergy who represent inter-denominational leaders from churches in Zimbabwe have condemned child marriage. The religious leaders revealed that when they converged at Holiday Inn Hotel in Harare on 28 November 2016 for the Inter-denominational Dialogue on Child Marriages in Zimbabwe, facilitated by Plan International Zimbabwe.
“As church leaders, we recognise that child abuse under the guise of “Child Marriage” is a harmful practice that is significantly prevalent in Zimbabwe and remarkably undermines the best interests of the children especially girls. We further recognise that Child Marriage has adverse effects for the child and for the society as a whole. When girls marry, many stop going to school. Child Marriage therefore robs them of their education, health and long term prospects,” read a part of communique by the religious leaders.
Reverend Tapfumanei Zenda, the President of the Christian Voices International said that religious leaders are the custodians and moral compass of society to preserve positive norms and values and can act as agents of change.
“As the Inter-denominational Religious Leaders, we pledge to partner the government, civil society, private sector, media, communities and the children to end Child Marriages in Zimbabwe.
“We will utilise the pulpit and other spaces within the church as platforms to raise awareness on child marriage, child rights, sex positive theology and doing specific prayers aimed at dislodging spiritual powers that influence such behaviour,” Zenda said.
He said there was the need to create spaces to listen to and respect children’s views on issues that affect them; provide emotional, practical and non-stigmatised support to girls who are or have been married and strengthen the family unit by encouraging parents to have quality time with their children, listening, protecting, loving and understanding that children have developmental stages that they go through.
Speaking at the same event, Tinotenda Hondo, a Gender Advisor with Plan International Zimbabwe said there are a number of problems associated with child marriage.
“With this practice, a childhood is lost. It leads to early pregnancy and child-birth-related complications. The child is also exposed to sexually transmitted infections and HIV,” Hondo said.
The African Union Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriage and Director of Rozaria Memorial Trust, Nyaradzai Gumbodzvanda weighed in by saying that it leads to children dropping out of school.
“Latest statistics carried by the Herald newspaper revealed that 4500 girls dropped out of school to be married in Zimbabwe. Thus, many girls are not transitioning from primary to secondary level or from high school to tertiary level.
“The Agenda 2063 of the African Union says children should be given the opportunity to access good health, education and have a right to well-being,” Gumbonzvanda said.
She lamented the physical and emotional abuse associated with negative cultural practices like chiramu in Shona where the husband of a girl’s relative can fondle a girl’s breast resulting in possible sexual abuse.
Gumbonzvanda dismissed the notion that some girls are married off as escape from economic hardships.
“This actually perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Can one or two cows paid off as damages to the girl’s family end her family’s poverty? Certainly not! Child marriage actually exacerbates the girl’s suffering and she may grapple with low self-esteem and exclusion for the rest of here life. There is also a high likelihood of stigma and discrimination for girls who have been married at the hands of their peers or the society,” Gumbonzvanda added.
Poverty has also been seen as the major contributor of destroying the family structure, creating vulnerabilities resulting in various forms of child abuse. In Zimbabwe, 31% of girls are married before the age of 18 years in Zimbabwe. The prevalence of dysfunctional families and the breakdown of the social fabric, some religious beliefs and cultural practices are among other social, economic factors contributing to the high prevalence of child marriage.
Child marriage is a major public health and social development challenge for Zimbabwe, just as it is for many other affected countries. Zimbabwe is among 41 countries with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. On average, one out of three girls in the country gets married before their 18th birthday. Five percent of women aged 15-49 years currently in marriage or union were married before the age 15 (rural 6 percent, urban 2 percent).
A situation analysis conducted by Plan Zimbabwe in 2011 established that in some of the most affected places, some brides are as young as 12 years old.6 A 2009 ZIMSTATS survey concluded that the median age at first marriage has been declining from 19 years for women currently aged 45-49 years to 16 years for those aged 15-19 years. Marriage before age 15 years decreased with education of women and household wealth, and increased with age of woman.
On the other hand, 32 percent of the women aged 20-49 years currently in marriage or union were married before age 18 years, (rural areas 39 percent, and urban areas 21 percent). Marriage before age 18 years decreased as education and wealth increased. The proportion of women aged 20-49 years who married before age 18 years was highest in the age group 45-49 years at 40 percent compared to around 31 percent in the rest of the age groups.