17 November 2011

Zimbabwe: Early Marriages Put Girls At HIV Risk


LOVENESS is a young woman aged 17. She is a mother of two toddlers. She now works as a domestic worker after having abandoned her marital home.

She is a member of one of the many churches claiming to have been founded by Baba Johanne Masowe. Despite running away, she still dresses in full white regalia from head to toe although she no longer attends the church.

"After having run away from my husband I cannot be admitted into the church. It is an offence to abandon a husband, so I will be tried by the church council, which anyway is a foregone conclusion. I risk being ex-communicated," said Loveness.

Loveness' story is sad. She grew up in the mapostori community, near Chitungwiza town centre.

The community commonly referred to as "kumapositori" was all she knew until she got married and moved to Domboshava as the third wife.

Loveness is one of the many young girls who are forced into early marriages by parents and guardians.

"I did not even know the man prior to my marriage. It was at an annual church gathering in Gandanzara in Rusape that I was given away to marry this man," said the innocent-looking girl, who could be in college had she been afforded a chance to go to school.

"I did not go to school at all, I did not even attend Grade 1. In fact, many from my community only went as far as Grade 5 or so, as for me, I was a girl child so there was need that I looked after the young ones at home when my parents engaged in the dish making venture," she said.

"The man who is a prophet and has three other wives saw in one of his visions at the gathering that I was 'given' to him as a wife. He announced this and my father and the elders went into a meeting and arranged the marriage," she said.

Loveness was not given a choice at all. Rather like a sheep to the slaughter she was led. "I cried a lot that night during the meeting. I was only 14 and needed to at least still remain at home and look after my siblings," she said.

"I could do nothing about that. I am a woman and a married woman for that matter. What men decide binds and I cannot challenge them," Loveness' mother said. Loveness' mother, who got a blanket and white material and some groceries from the marriage package, had no power to object.

The father was given R2 000 as lobola a day after the meeting and Loveness was bundled off to her new home and husband.

Asked why she let her minor child get into a polygamous union she replied that it was normal.

"It is normal that a man gets married to as many wives as he wants as long as he can take care of them. In fact, I am also in such a union so there is nothing peculiar, it's a hand- me-down traditional culture of our church," she said. Loveness said to say that she is happy that she escaped from her forced marriage is an understatement.

"You know there were days I just dreamt that I was dying slowly or that my husband had died and woke up feeling happy only to find that I was dreaming," she said.

When a spouse wishes a partner dead then that union is doomed.

Loveness said she was saved by a girl who befriended her and helped her to escape the bondage. "I met a girl everyday around 4pm as we watered the gardens. I told her of my ordeal and she promised to find me a job when her aunt visited, that is how I ended up here in Warren Park as a domestic worker," said Loveness. Loveness misses her children but there was no way she could have taken them along with her.

"I would have been caught and, in fact, I did not have a place to take them to. My good friend had found me a job and I could not take the children with me," she said.

Loveness has not seen her children in a year and she says she does not intend to get married again.

"After I had started work, I explained my position to my employer and she was sympathetic but unable to do anything about it. She took me to our local clinic when I got a nagging cough that would not go away after taking syrups," said the young mother.

At the clinic she was offered a voluntary counselling and testing of HIV which she reluctantly took.

"I was first counselled and took an HIV test. To my shock, I tested HIV positive. I wept, I thought I was dying," she said. "I was also asked to submit sputum for TB testing. In the meantime I was given some tablets and told to go home and check the results after a week," she said. Loveness's employer gave her sometime to recuperate and the two went back to collect her results.

Again the young girl had TB and the doctor immediately put her on medication.

"To say I was devastated is an understatement. I wanted to kill myself but my employer who has been more of a parent assured me that I would get well and I believed her," she said.

Loveness said she had the necessary tests run and two months after commencing TB medication she was put on ARVs.

Her employer assured her that she would not lose her job but needed to get treated and get well. Since she had no where to go, she went back to her workplace.

"I am worried now about my children. I have heard that there could be a possibility that they could be infected too," she said with tears building up in her eyes.

Loveness said her employer has promised to help her get her children in the near future so that she stays with them as she works, but right now she needs to complete her TB medication.

"My employer promised to get the relevant people before Christmas so that we go and collect my children. I will then go and look after my employers' homestead on a plot in Chegutu where I will live with my children.

She also said she will take the children to the hospital along with me and if infected they will receive the correct help," said Loveness.

"Right now I am glad that I have my life back and getting better," she said.

Such religious practices where older men force young girls into marriages put girls at risk of getting infected with HIV at a tender age.

Sharon Shamuyarira, who is the Child Member of Parliament for Hatfield and also the Minister of SMEs, spoke against early marriages for girls. She was supported by the Speaker of Parliament, Vladmir Tawanda Tomuseni, at a recent workshop by SafAids in the city. Hon Shamuyarira queried how the law arrived at having girls validating customary marriage at 16 yet the boy had to be 18 years.

"Taking it from a human rights angle, having girls getting married at 16 and the boy at 18 does not put them at an equal footing.

"This gender inequality has to be addressed as it risks having young girls getting infected with HIV," said Shamuyarira.

"What we need are equal opportunities in education and life not to throw the girl child at the deep end with no life jacket," said Hon Shamuyarira.

Tomuseni concurred.

"What is right for the boy child is right for the girl child. We are talking gender balance so we need not treat them differently," said Tomuseni. The playing field needs to be levelled as we seek to protect the girl child from harmful social and cultural practices.

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