Give us books, not husbands

Many cases of early and forced child marriages go unreported because of parental and guardians’ involvement. Such practices rob young women of their future.

Chiefs from Mashonaland East.
Chiefs from Mashonaland East.

Community involvement in providing a firm foundation for young women and girls is critical if Zimbabwe is to succeed in the fight against early and forced marriage, Chief Mutoko told The Zimbabwean in a recent interview.

“Society should revert back to traditional practices that valued every child and took responsibility in their well-being,” he said, adding that not all traditional practices are harmful.

“Moral decadence has seen society labelling all traditional practices with the same black brush. This is not true because we have traditional practices that promoted community involvement in the upbringing of every child, placing the older men and women with the responsibility of nurturing every child in the community as if they were their own,” he said.

The Katswe Sistahood in partnership with the women’s affairs ministry last week held a meeting attended by over 35 traditional leaders from Mashonaland East to come up with possible interventions to help in fighting early and forced marriages.

No security

He cited an example of a 14-year-old girl in his community who had been married off to a man 35 years her senior against her will. The matter was brought to his attention by a member of the community.

“We set up a community monitoring group that is the ears and eyes of our constituency in bringing to light such issues,” said Chief Nyoka of Mashonaland West.

Some members of the community are reluctant to blow the whistle on such issues because they are not sure if their security is guaranteed when the perpetrators find out who reported them.

“It is important for traditional leaders as custodians of culture to promote the spirit of responsibility in society,” said Chief Nyoka. “We should ensure that community watchdogs are protected. People who raise the alarm should be confident that when they bring such issues to our attention, we will promote justice without compromising their safety.”

Gatekeepers

Dubbed the ‘Give us books and not husbands campaign’ the Katswe Sistahood programme encourages traditional leaders to interrogate and appreciate their role in the fight against early and forced child marriage.

The campaign, which recognises that traditional leaders are the gatekeepers of culture and have an important role to play, supports traditional leaders at the grassroots level.

Talent Jumo, the National Coordinator, said the Sistahood partnered government and the National Chiefs Council as the umbrella body that supports traditional leaders in creating space for dialogue among stakeholders.

“Chiefs and their headmen live closest to the people and the Constitution places on them the responsibility of promoting and upholding cultural values in accordance with the laws of Zimbabwe,” said Jumo.

Marrying off young girls early denies them the opportunity to finish their education. “Access to education has the potential to provide a firm foundation and springboard to success for our young girls,” she said.

“There are some families that are forcing underage girls into marriage under the guise of religion or for economic reasons.”

The chiefs added that forcing girls into marriage was a gross violation of their human rights.

“We are holding community dialogue meetings where there is consensus that forcing girls into marriage robs them f their future and it destroys them physically and emotionally,” said Jumo.

Founded in 2007, Katswe Sistahood is a young women’s movement fighting for the full attainment of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) for women in Zimbabwe.

The organisation’s vision is for a skilled and empowered generation of women who are able to mobilise, organise and articulate their needs and aspirations in respect of SRH education, services and legal protection.

Safe haven

Katswe aims at bridging the communication gap between the young women, government and policy-makers to promote a safe Zimbabwe for women to challenge cultural norms and practices that disadvantage young women.

It is a safe space in which a network of women can confront taboos, stigmas and challenges patriarchy.

Safe spaces do not alienate people of different religions and backgrounds but accept diversity and transcend differences. Katswe targets women aged 15-35, who include school dropouts, sex workers, young mothers, students and professionals.

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