Concern over increase in child marriages in Africa

By Nevson Mpofu

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women, also known as UN Women, working together with the Women Coalition of Zimbabwe and Child Coalition have expressed concern over the increase in cases of child marriage and welcomed the new legislation to address the vice.

Taking heed to India’s Founding Father, Mahatma Gandhi’s words which say, ‘’Women, be the change you want to see in the World,” the women have become change agents. With support from UN Women, the Women’s Coalition is bringing that change. The girls and women rights organisation whole- heartedly worked out to propel a way forward on the enactment of Law on Child marriage and children indulging in sex among themselves.

Traditional and cultural practices have over the past decade undermined women’s rights which also are human rights according to Articles under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the UN Universal Declaration for Human Rights. In 1980, the new Zimbabwean Government which came to power passed laws and policies like The Legal Age of Majority Act, Equal Salaries Act, Matrimonial Causes Act, Maintenance Act, Development policies and Gender Policy up to 2009 when it passed the Domestic Violence Act among others which came to the rescue of women .Those antique immoral practices exposed women to sexual abuse, economic and social exploitation resulting in child marriage.  Guided by the 1979 UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, these organisations have pushed the Gender Based Violence Act of 2009.

Adding more assuage to pain exposed to acidic salt, in 1966 the UN passed two conventions which work in cahoots with other International Instruments. The Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights opened way for countries to move towards total women emancipation and liberalism. The only blockage in line with total liberty of women and children is Child Marriage.

Child marriage has been practiced at the expense of the girl child who could be betrothed to an older man through the path of traditional and cultural values. Though concert may be there sometimes, it’s completely wrong because most young women who bear children at early age suffer Vector- Vaginal –Fistula which is a tear between the vagina and the anus resulting sometimes in feces passing through the vagina. The mentioned above VVF is similar to obstrectic fistula which adds more to complications which occur in pregnancy. This occurs when a pregnant woman suffer from HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE [BP] .She then is followed by coma and posing threat to a baby  .Secondly, there cephalo-pelvic disproportion which occurs when a baby’s head is too large to fit through mother’s pelvis . Another complication is failure to labor which later leads to diagnosis.

The other challenge though the Child Marriage Act can be vocal and sensitive since it talks of 18 as the ripe age for marriage under the law Age of Majority ACT, the Age of Consent lingers in to claim bitter space in what has been spruced .Age of consent is 16 but a girl can be in sex of which in the event of pregnancy , the girl child is at heat. Commenting on this, Lois Chingandu SAFAIDS DIRECTOR said they are working with UN AGENCIES to come out with strategies meant to work towards the issue.

‘’Great, yes it is true. We are in the processing of balancing this, which may end up a resonating  challenge as we move towards total emancipation of women .As we move along the new path of total freedom of all women , we reflect in retrospect where we went wrong , take a snap of correction to that which deter us move ahead .’’ she said .

Child marriages expose girls to Reproductive Tract Infections which affects them in terms of Maternal Health. Secondly, they get exposed to sexual transmitted infections exposing them to HIV and AIDS which is treatable but not curable and when treating, World Health Organization Guide-Lines, Prevention, Treatment, Care and Support must be adhered to.

The most macro undisputable fact is that, those marriages expose young girls to poverty. When they get into early forced marriage, they do not get chance to proceed with their education , hence undermined in their rights .This is in violation with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Articles which states that children must not be exposed to what is against International Conventions .

The UN and Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe spearhead a forum where women meet to engage in collective activism on issues affecting them. The women organisation network has structures at national level to champion the rights and welfare of all women.

At a recent Ending child marriage symposium, the National Coordinator of Women Coalition Sally Dura said apart from the thorny issue of child marriage, the issue of children among themselves engaging in sexual intercourse need to be legally looked at seriously .

”Our worry lies on child marriage and children who are engaging in sex. These are school children mind you. Most of them are starting this at tender age of 14 years, just imagine such weird actions by an adolescent’’.

”Our problem is we do not have the law on this particular issue I am talking about .We need to craft legislation. It is a disturbing issue to hear about this at a time we are looking at child marriage , young girls getting married at early age’’.

The Coordinator also came to the point of talking about children who can also be rapists like the issue of a 13 year old boy in Zvimba who sexually abused six young girls aged 4, 5 and 6 when they were coming from school in 2016. This stands as evidence on ground.

”We still have no law looking at such issues. It’s quite shocking to hear of a child perpetrator, Lets think of introspective policies and move towards what we call Total Emancipation of women and Girls for Economic Development . ”

Zimbabwe is one of the countries with high figures of child marriages which arise from appeasing of avenging spirits, (kuripisa vanasikana ngozi), betrothal, (kuzvarira) among them. Although these are weakening, gender stereotypes still remain a problem in the African community . This is manifested in a set up where traditional and cultural norms are still practiced .Gender stereotypes define a person and wrongly determine success and progress according to sex.

The African Union is mandated to end child marriages by 2014, however traditional and cultural practices hamper on the progress .It is therefore important to support legal and policy actions in the    protection of women’s rights.

”Let’s give ourselves the role to advocate continental awareness in order for us to fight and win on the negative impacts of early child marriage which is a problem to be looked critically at as we find new way forward to further address such issues to win on Sustainable Development Goals, ’she said.

The coordinator who clearly pointed out that this was a forum to amplify voices of girls and women in the community said building social movements and social advocacy at grassroots and national levels remain key in solving these gender issues.

UN Women has a programme of reaching into the communities directly to address at the issue of child marriage. Mitchell Gudo, a Gender Expert commented that it is important to build on social movements and educate people from grassroots level to stand against child marriage which is a drawback idea which does not build on young people but rather destroys the social fabric of our country.

”Let’s build on structures meant to bring a stronghold which protects young people from factors affecting child marriage which reduces on the chance of the girl child to advance with her education’’.

”Child marriage still does have an effect on the Health of young girls if they are exposed to early sexual life and early marriage. The double effects have more ascending repercussions which destroy life of the girl child socially and economically as a nation.”

”This is caused by traditional and cultural practices which over the past years have had effects on the whole life fabric of the girl child who get exposed to consequences which do pull her down in life,”  she said .

The AU Report also reveals that 31% of young women between 20 and 24  years of age who are mothers were married before their 18th birthday .

According to the African Union Report, Zimbabwe is ranked on position 21 on child marriage this year from position 27 in 2012. UNICEF, African Union and African countries are making strides to end child marriage in the continent as a whole .In 2013, Dr. Dhlamini Zuma , Former Chairperson of African Union at the International Conference on Family Planning supported by UNFPA was quoted:

‘’We must do away with child marriage. Girls who end up as brides at tender age are coerced into having children while they are children themselves’’.

Zimbabwe which is signatory to the United Nations confirmed to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children according to a Zimbabwean Expert . The Convention holds three protocols of which Zimbabwe accepted for the sake of children’s rights. Optional protocol 1 is on the ban of children in armed conflicts and protocol 2 on sale of children, prostitution and pornography and the third one is on Communication Procedure which allows children to submit complaints regarding violations.

‘’We are holding several meetings in connection with child marriages and we really know as a country we are moving in fighting against practices undermining rights of children . The move saves children who must not have children yet they are still children ‘’. Said a Child Rights Expert Maxim Murungweni speaking on behalf of UNICEF .

Other African countries have launched programs on child marriage and the AU had Continental launch in 2014 .In South Africa, such issues are discussed during commemoration of the Day of the African Child .Zimbabwe has taken strides to address the issue affecting girls and women on ground .

On 20 January 2016 Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe handed down a landmark ruling in the case of Loveness  Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi versus Minister of Justice , Legal and Parliamentary Affairs , Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa , the Minister of Women Affairs Gender and Community Development and the Attorney General of Zimbabwe .

The Two Applicants in that matter were two young women 18 and 19 years respectively seeking declaratory order in Terms that the effect of Section 78[1] of the Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment [NO 20]2013 is to set 18 as the minimum age of marriage in Zimbabwe. It is therefore to be law according to section 81 of the constitution that an 18 year old girl or boy cannot marry.