from MARCUS MUSHONGA in Harare, Zimbabwe
HARARE, (CAJ News) – IN Zimbabwe, a country synonymous with political polarisation, the unanimous endorsement by legislators of the Marriage Act is a landmark move that will save the nation the ignominy of one of the worst cases of child marriages.
Zimbabwe suffered global infamy slightly more than a year ago when a 14-year old girl died as she gave birth at an apostolic in the eastern province of Manicaland.
She had been forced out of school and into marriage at age 13. She was secretly buried two hours later by the church.
Her so-called husband has been on the run after he absconded on his bail.
Apart from triggering outrage, including that of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the incident brought to the fore one of the scourges that have plagued the Southern African country for decades.
That of families hiding behind religion and traditional customs to force young girls into marriage.
The death of Anna Machaya, mentioned above was only a tip of the iceberg.
Thousands of young girls, some barely into their puberty, have been forced to surrender their childhood for motherhood and marriage.
According to the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, “There is an on-going and unabated practice in religious and cultural sects of rape, child abuse, and marrying-off young girls, exposing them to child pregnancies and worse.”
The violations increased during the lengthy school closures at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zimbabwe’s rising poverty levels have also influenced some parents to marry their children off to wealthier families as a coping strategy.
In March 2021, government reported that in the first two months of that year, 4 959 underage girls fell pregnant.
Successive Zimbabwean governments have been accused of complicity for failure to enforce legislation against the scourge.
The current administration of President Emmerson Mnangagwa is hopeful of the end of such trends with the enactment of the Marriages Act, the legislation that effectively criminalises child marriages among some of its key provisions.
All traditional practices, cultures, religious beliefs and practice which enable and facilitate child marriages are therefore unlawful.
The Marriages Act replaces the Marriage Act and Customary Marriages Act that have been repealed.
Under the new legislation, “No person under the age of eighteen years may contract a marriage or enter into an unregistered customary law marriage or a civil partnership.”
Any person, other than the child concerned, who contravenes the law would be liable to imprisonment for a period not exceeding five years and/or a fine.
In an unprecedented move, ZLHR, one of the most vocal critics of the government, welcomed the new instrument.
“The Marriages Act is commendable because it unequivocally abolishes and criminalises child marriages and will hopefully if implemented, protect children particularly girls, who over the years have borne the brunt of the unlawful and despicable practice,” the lawyers’ group stated.
The outlawing of child marriages thus effectively stops a litany of legal applications by individuals and civil society groups that for years have approached the courts to halt the practice.
The Community Peace Club (CPC) is among such organisations.
Muchaneta Mundeyiri, CPC chairperson, recently highlighted the need for communities to complement government’s efforts to end early child marriages, as well as gender-based violence.
“We believe it’s our own contribution as a community in complementing government’s efforts towards creating a safe environment for young girls and women free from any form of abuse,” she said.
In May, in another breakthrough, Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court (Concourt) ruled that the legal age of sexual consent be increased from 16 to 18 years old.
Edward Kallon, the UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Zimbabwe, hailed this and the High-level Political Compact (HLPC) to end violence against women and girls launched at the end of 2021 were examples of progress on policy and practice in the country.
HLPC is a joint initiative of the government, the European Union (EU) delegation to Zimbabwe, and the UN in Zimbabwe.
“Child marriage compromises girls’ development and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation,” Kallon.
According to UNICEF, one woman out of three was married before the age of 18 in Zimbabwe.
– CAJ News