Zimbabwe: Child Marriage Laws, a Pie in the Sky

Seventeen-year-old Natsiraishe Maritsa, founder of the Vulnerable Underaged People's Auditorium Initiative, teaches her peers about the dangers of early pregnancy and early marriage and keeps them busy with martial arts.

After the death of her mother, Rutendo Mutema [16] of Mukhuyu village in Manzvire [ward 22], Chipinge, was left under the custody of her unemployed uncle.

For two years her uncle [her mother's brother] paid her school fees, but stopped the support when Mutema was in Form 3 forcing her to drop out of school.

She was also forced into a marriage, which she believes was arranged by her "greedy" uncle.

The Standard caught up with Mutema, who was among a group of expecting mothers who had come for prenatal service at Manzvire Clinic.

"My husband went back to South Africa recently. He was here during the last half of last year. I am told he had a lot of money when he came back from South Africa sometime last year, which might have caused my uncle to 'put me up for sale'," Mutema said.

"Everything happened so fast. "Even my aunt [my uncle's wife] supported her husband. I had no choice, but to move out and join this new family."

Rutendo's predicament is faced by a myriad of girls across the globe whose rights have been violated left, right and centre despite their countries having promulgated laws and ratified and are party to, conventions that protect children against child sexual exploitation and abuse, including child marriages.

According to the United Nations Population Fund [UNFPA], globally, one in every five girls is married, or in a union, before reaching age 18. In the least developed countries, Zimbabwe included that number doubles - 40% of girls are married before age 18, and 12% of girls are married before age 15.

The Zimbabwe's National Statistics Agency says one in three women aged 20 to 49 reported that they married before age 18. The child marriage prevalence rate is 32% in Zimbabwe.

Despite having laws and policies that are against child marriages, the practice remains widespread in Zimbabwe.

On May 22, 2013 the late former president Robert Mugabe appended his signature to a new constitution, which now is the fundamental law of the country.

The new constitution was expected to have been aligned with several of the key international and regional gender equality and women's rights instruments that Zimbabwe signed and ratified.

These include the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action as well as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

What makes the constitution remarkable is that it opens with provisions stating that respect for gender equality is one of the country's founding values. The Declaration of Rights includes a section on women's rights, which was expanded to include socio-economic and cultural rights, and it can be used in legal or judicial proceedings.

On paper, the constitution became the darling of many as it created new opportunities for women in jobs, education, leadership and governance as well as finance and credit.

However, eight years since the enactment of the Constitution, women continue to suffer due to of gaps in the supreme law document coupled with some traditional and cultural practices, which have been allowed to prevail over legislative systems.

Despite a constitutional Court landmark judgement on January 20, 2016 that ruled that any marriage before the age of 18 is illegal, the high prevalence rate of child marriages in the country remains worrisome.

Platform for Youth Development Trust gender and advocacy officer, Cynthia Gwenzi considered that despite the country boasting of laws that protect children against abuse, including child marriages, the practice was widespread.

"Zimbabwe has legal provisions that help curb child marriages. "We have Lama ( Legal Age of Majority Act), the Zimbabwe constitution (section 81), the 2016 Constitutional Court ruling, the Domestic Violence Act, Children's Act and the Amended and Criminal Law ( codification and reform) Act," Gwenzi said.

"All these legal instruments are tools that are available to help curb child marriages in our society.

"However, the challenge arises when there is a clash between the law and culture together with religion that the application of the law becomes problematic in our communities. In this scenario, culture/religion takes precedence over the law as most communities are more aware of culture/religion than the provisions of our law."

Gwenzi said the law was responding well, but it has not adequately addressed the scourge of child marriages.

She said sexual and reproductive health rights [SRHR] education and campaigns should be rolled out to inform communities on the dangers of child marriages.

"We have a project that we call Kungoma where we are nurturing adolescents on SRHR issues. This is done with the help of aunts and uncles through sharing of knowledge and information on SRHR so that the girls can be able to make informed decisions," Gwenzi said.

"We are targeting even five-year-olds and starting with mahumbwe as a way of grooming them. With adolescents, we are even involving health workers to teach the adolescents on STIs [sexually-transmitted infections] and the impact of having unwanted pregnancies.

"So far, we have started working with 15 adolescents per ward in Chipinge's 32 wards and we have developed a peer educator model, which these children will be using in schools to bring many adolescents on board."

There was a glimmer of hope in 2016 after the Constitutional Court outlawed child marriages and struck down section 22(1) of the Marriage Act, which for years had allowed children under the age of 18 years to marry.

This was after Ruvimbo Tsopodzi and Loveness Mudzuru, who were supported by a local girls' rights organisation, Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support [Roots], appealed to the Constitutional Court to amend the Marriage Act.

The Marriage Act stated that a child of 16 could get married with parental consent.

"The 2016 Constitutional Court ruling was enough to curb child marriages and great strides have been made as the prosecution net now reaches out to the families of the child married off," said Roots programmes officer Siatra Msandu.

"However, there is still much to be done in realigning the laws, for example the Children's Act, we still have a long way to go with our legislators.

"Our constitution has the provisions that protect the girls from abuse, but our problem is that these laws have to do with women and girls are not made a priority in terms of implementation because our Parliament is built on patriarchy."

Msandu said Roots was pushing in advocacy for the realignment of laws, while on the ground they are engaging communities through traditional and religious structures on the dangers of child marriages.

She said there were some positives as they are now working with other stakeholders on the formulation of the national action plan on ending child marriages in Zimbabwe.

The proposal of the Marriage Bill in 2017 to replace the Customary Marriages Act and the Marriage Act was also viewed as progressive in championing women's rights as some of its clauses are meant to embargo child marriages.

The Bill, which if it comes into fruition would among other issues reconcile the vagueness and gaps contained in the two pieces of statutes, is viewed in as a step in the right direction in containing child marriages.

"In terms of legal remedies, there should be a law that addresses the issue of child marriages, particularly the age of marriage. At the moment there is a Marriage Bill which is being debated in Parliament this afternoon [last Thursday], which seeks to address the minimum age of marriage as 18. That is a positive step," said Abigirl Matsveru from the Women Lawyers Association.

"Beyond putting in place the law, there should be implementing mechanisms for enforcing the law so that those who breach the law should be brought to book."

Zimbabwe Gender Commission CEO Virginia Muwanigwa believes something was being done legally to curb child marriages in Zimbabwe. She said the Marriage Bill, which is being tabled before Parliament bears testimony of work in progress.

"Firstly, progress must be made in law reform and progressive laws are a sign that a country is exercising good governance in terms of accountability as well as inclusivity, but I will also be quick to ascertain that coming up with a Bill and finally laws is not a one day event and there are justifiable excuses for the delays," Muwanigwa said.

"We, however, continue to urge those in authority to expedite the consultation processes since the law will go a long way in addressing the various vices affecting women and young girls. We are also buoyed by the fact that since the advent of the Bill our courts have stepped in expressing the much-needed judicial activism."

Muwanigwa cited the 2016 Constitutional Court ruling that outlawed child marriages as the biggest victory in the fight against child brides and poverty.

"As it stands our courts stand by that ruling and that is progress in terms of protecting especially the girl child against early marriages. This does not, however, take away the essence of the full statutory criminalisation of the scourge, which resides amongst the cocktail of harmful practices prejudicial to gender equality, "she said.

"Modalities are in place to continuously engage our traditional leaders and faith based organisation, which still harbours these practices through a national inquiry and investigative research initiatives.

"While we wait for Parliament to expedite finalisation of the Marriage Bill to be put into law, there is a lot that can be done by all stakeholders, including the civic society, private and public sectors, the church and the communities at large. There is need for a whole of government holistic approach to ensure that there is an end to child marriages. "

Muwanigwa said the Zimbabwe Gender Commission has over the years utilised its mandate as provided for in the constitution and the Zimbabwe Gender Commission Act [Chapter 10:31] in calling for legal reform as a way of realising gender equality.

For Mutema and many other bride maids they have had their development and wellbeing harmed through limited education and employment opportunities, social isolation, domestic violence and rape.

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