Pregnant 9 year-old girl case highlights issues of child-marriage in Zimbabwe

Phillipa Jaja

Recent reports of a nine year old Tsholotsho girl who is expected to give birth at the United Bulawayo Hospitals has brought to the fore the issue of child-marriages in Zimbabwe.

The girl, who is expected to give birth by caesarean section sometime this month and become the youngest known mum in Zimbabwe’s history , is said to be refusing to disclose the identity of the man who impregnated her, which has led to all sorts of speculation.

The girl’s story is not in isolation as a lot of stories about grade seven girls giving birth whilst writing the recently ended November examinations also made the news.

Furthermore, Nokutenda Hwaramba, a 15 year Norton girl also recently died because of pregnancy complications at a shrine in Bikita barely a year after the death of Anna Machaya, a child bride, who died at a Johanne Marange Apostolic Church shrine whilst giving birth.

These stories are evidence enough that minors are increasingly engaging in sexual behavior leading to unplanned early pregnancies. Sadly, some child brides are victims of rape by close family members and the matter is sometimes swept under the carpet.

The pregnant nine year old mentioned above is alleged to have refused to reveal the name of her abuser. Apparent therefore is the use of threats and sometimes force to silence victims. Sometimes it is through negotiated consent with religion as an example as some sects in the country encourage child marriages.

Nearly 1 in 3 women in Zimbabwe are married before the age of 18. Child marriages predominantly affect girls who live in rural areas.

Gaps in the country’s laws, extreme poverty, and harmful religious, disastrous pandemics and traditional practices have all been observed as critical factors contributing to this vice.

Child marriages are not a new phenomenon having been a traditional practice that was also adopted by religious sects such as the African Apostolic churches in Zimbabwe.

Nevertheless, it is not peculiar to the country alone as it is a worldwide occurrence. Closer to home in Zambia, the Zambia Daily Main Limited recently reported that over 1,600 teenage pregnancies have been recorded in Solwezi, north-Western Province, between January and September this year.

The number includes 100 girls aged between 10 and 14. Ironically, there a number of days set aside for the celebration of women by the United Nations.

Two of these are celebrated in October namely the Day of the Girl Child on the 11th and the International Day of Rural Women for the 14th. One would be forgiven for thinking that such holidays would instill a duty to protect the girl child against abuses such as child marriages but the opposite is true.

UNICEF says that the prevalence of child marriage is now one in five today whilst 1 in 3 girls are married in Zimbabwe before the age of 18. Society is not actively participating in making a safe world for the girl child.

Instead of empowering the girl child with education critical for equipping them with life skills, the community is giving them husbands.

The old adage “it takes a community to raise a child” meaning that a child is the community’s responsibility has slowly been done away with.

Beginning with the family, society, the church and the school to everyone else, people are no longer concerned enough about the girl child.

They are turning a blind eye to activities happening under their watch. Florence Mutake, Programs Manager at Shamwari Yemwanasikana outlined this clearly as she noted;

“There is need to have rounded community practices that promote the protection of the girl child from such violations. Community as a role has a huge responsibility to ensure children are protected, unfortunately the spirit of Ubuntu is no longer as strong as we knew in past decades,”

Mutake said people had attitudes and perceptions that were reluctant in taking up actions to arrest any acts of abuse, adding only a few in the community responded while a greater number chose to become by-standers at the expense of the lives of young people w being lost with each case, either through death or loss of potential.

“Instead of being by standers Zimbabwe needs active citizens that are not hesitant to take actions in preventing or responding to such issues,” she said.

Reverand Taylor Nyanhete, National Director of Zimbabwe National Council for the Welfare of Children (ZNCWC) concurred, saying community needed to do more regarding this issue.

“Communities should set up protection systems that observe and report violation of girls and child rape. It is ironic that people could not notice the nine year old girl’s pregnancy until it was at an advanced stage. Had people been closely following up on what was happening they would have noticed something was amiss. Hence, collective effort is needed to raise these children,” he said

He called for the education sector to create physical examining spaces for girls, noting that parents were often times the perpetrators, thus schools should take it further and have these examinations and extensive counselling done so that more victims would open up.

“On that note, I applaud the many stakeholders’ efforts of raising awareness on this topic as evidenced by these stories in the media. Our policy framework is also child friendly but they can only act upon information and so social protection policies at all levels need to be activated so that girls are kept safe.”

Recently, the Minister of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterpris[1]es (MWACSMED) Sithembiso Nyoni at the recently launched international Day of Rural Women weighed in saying

“I implore all of us to reflect and introspect if this (child marriages) is the kind of life we want for our girl child. This introspection is not limited to any organisation or individual, it calls for collective action.”

Tonderai Kanongora, a city counsellor who runs the Counselling Hub media franchise believes the family set up plays a much bigger role in preventing child marriage.

“Before venturing into the community, we talk about family therapy. Communication and counselling of young people within the family unity is lacking. Mothers should monitor changes in their daughters likewise fathers to their sons.

This makes them open up especially towards issues of sex. Absence of this results in community failing to chasten errant behaviour in young people.

Hence family should set the tone for the community in order to minimise the issue of child rape.”

Society needs realise that by allowing child marriages they are cheerleaders to child rape.

Young girls cannot be said to be mature enough to give informed consent to sex.

This is the reason why the Marriage Act clearly stipulates that the marriage age is 18. This allows girls to reach their full potential in the various spheres of their lives be it education or maturity. Child marriage exposes girls to a lot vices that are easily preventable.

It robs girls of their childhood. It takes away the playfulness and the inquisitive nature that characterises the young instilling a sense of forced marital responsibility that they are not able to handle.

This creates tension in the marriage set up which inevitably leads to domestic violence. Child brides rarely remain in school further robbing the country of future valuable and skilled personnel that drives the economy.

Girls who marry before 18 have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, further straining a country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services.

Child brides often become pregnant during adolescence, when the risk of complications during pregnancy and child birth increases – for themselves and their infants.

The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends and exclude them from participating in their communities, taking a heavy toll on their physical and psychological well-being.

Behaviour change is critical in the ending of child marriage and consequently child rape. Legislation and enforcement is not sufficient as attested by recent cases involving teenage pregnancy.

The family and the community should advocate for an end to the phenomena with protection systems being put in place to curb child marriage and consequently child rape.

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