Books, Not Husbands: Fighting Child Marriage In Zimbabwe

The phenomenon of child brides is today still dramatically well-grounded in South Asia and Africa, with 700 million women alive today married as girls. Every year, 15 million girls below the age of 15 are forced by their families or their tribes to marry older men. In Zimbabwe, this habit is particularly entrenched. Although recent governmental legislation is taking steps to end child marriage, this practice remains well-established in traditional tribal culture and is rooted in a general gender-based discrimination. This practice still dominates the country’s society as most rural citizens are unaware of laws and legislation against domestic violence and sexual offences.

Child marriage is one expression of a rooted gender-based violence problem in Zimbabwe. While women are protected from discrimination under the constitution, discriminatory customary laws and traditions remain firm in justifying gender disparity, violence, and abuses. The Zimbabwe National Statistics Office (ZimStat) in April 2016 reported that “At least 21 women are raped daily in Zimbabwe, translating to one woman being sexually abused every 75 minutes. In societies like the Zimbabwean one, where rape and sexual abuse are part of daily-life, marriage often represents the optimal environment to legitimize these habits even more.” Meanwhile, a 2017 report by RefWorld states that although domestic violence is punishable by a fine and a maximum prison sentence of 10 years, authorities generally considered it to be a private matter, so prosecution is rare.

Not surprisingly, the internalized habits associated with gender-based discrimination have also made it very difficult to eradicate phenomena like child marriage, which remains a widely accepted custom, especially in rural areas of the country. According to “Girls not Brides,” in 2016 approximately 1 in 3 girls in Zimbabwe were married before their 18th birthday. The practice is particularly associated with Zimbabwe’s indigenous apostolic churches, which tend to mix Christian values with traditional tribal culture and counts approximately 1.2. million followers around the country. The 2015 Human Rights Watch report, “Zimbabwe: Scourge of Child Marriage,” states that church doctrine requires girls to marry between ages 12 and 16 to prevent sexual relations outside marriage. Under this pretext, any man can claim a girl to become his wife as soon as she reaches puberty.

With that said, child marriage has disastrous and harmful consequences on both the health of young girls and their opportunities for capacity development. A 2015 investigation by Human Rights Watch documented that child marriage typically ends a girl ability to continue her education, exposes her to domestic and sexual violence, and increased her risk of HIV infection. Furthermore, in the worst of cases, a girl who becomes pregnant when her body is not yet ready may die in childbirth and her baby may also not survive. Being a child bride also affects young girls’ psychological status. Most of them end up suffering from isolation or depression, and consequently, this influences the quality of nurturing and care they give to their children. Studies are also beginning to show the dramatic consequences that high rates of child marriage have on economic growth. According to UNICEF, inaction on child marriage tends to be most costly. Ending child marriage in Zimbabwe would. therefore, also mean to establish a path for economic and social development.

Laws pertaining to marriage in Zimbabwe have always been discriminatory against girls: the 1964 Marriage Act allows girls aged 16 to marry, while the minimum age for boys is 18. Nonetheless, in the past five years, the Zimbabwean government has demonstrated to prioritize the problem of child brides by taking steps to modify the nature and form of legislation which indirectly accepted it. In 2013, Zimbabwe adopted a new Constitution which stipulates that “no person may be compelled to enter marriage against their will” and calls on the state to ensure that “no children are pledged into marriage.” In 2014, two former child brides Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi filed an application asking the Constitutional Court to declare the Marriage Act and the Customary Marriage Act unconstitutional and in January 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Marriage Act was unconstitutional and recognised 18 years as the legal minimum age of marriage for both genders.

Although these legislative improvements have been successful in pursuing an evolution of Zimbabwe’s marriage’s law, an exclusive legal intervention is not sufficient in dealing with a problem which is rooted in the cultural and customary framework of the Zimbabwean society. Most rural citizens are not familiar with the country’s legal code and respond to the laws of the community, especially those made and perpetuated by religious and tribal leaders. For this reason, a step towards the end of child marriage should also include an indirect effort to provide quality services for girls, opening up opportunities for alternative life paths than those expected from them in their villages or communities. Investment in access to quality education is central to solving this problem. The national campaign “Give us books, not husbands” was founded in 2014 by Katswe Sistahood to take action against child marriage and in favour of young girls’ education. The campaign goes at the heart of the problem by encouraging traditional leaders to promote the spirit of responsibility in society, making them realize the value of educated and liberated women for the community. In partnership with the Women’s Affairs Ministry, “Give us books, not husbands” represents a concrete effort to change the mindset of the Zimbabwean society to promote equal rights and gender parity. Arguably, this bottom-up approach is the greatest hope for Zimbabwe to overcome this tragic situation.

Benedetta Zocchi