New research reveals shocking child marriage stats

Recent research names the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect as one of the worst perpetrators of the practice of giving away child brides in Zimbabwe today, where 21 per cent of married women are under the age of 18.

An estimated 8,000 girls are held as sex slaves in Zimbabwe. The Girl Child Network empowerment village is a safe haven to many.
An estimated 8,000 girls are held as sex slaves in Zimbabwe. The Girl Child Network empowerment village is a safe haven to many.

Chipo was just 13 when she was married to a man in his 60s and suffered months of physical and sexual abuse.

She is one of thousands of girls who were forced into marriage as child brides.

Her ‘husband’ Mr Mukorombindo was, at the time, an elder of the Johane Marange Apostolic Sect and also a headmaster at a local school. He told members of the church he dreamt God gave him a young girl to marry and so he was duly wed to Chipo.

She escaped after six months when she heard Betty Makoni, the founder of the Girl Child Network (GCN) speak on the radio about the problem of child brides. Makoni gave a phone number to call and, when Chipo’s ‘husband’ was at work, she called the GCN.

Makoni said: “We rescued the girl and put her in our Girls Empowerment Village and now she has completed her studies and now fights for the rights of other girls. What is worrying is that after this case, he took other two girls aged 12 and 13 as wives.”

Her tormentor was never arrested because, although it is illegal to have sex with a child under the age of consent, which is 18, he was protected by customary law which allows the tradition of child marriages.

Sex slaves

This paradox in the law and the unwillingness of the authorities to put a stop to the practice means thousands of young, vulnerable girls are forced into marriages and a vicious circle of sexual abuse with no one to help them. The GCN estimates there are as many as 100,000 girls, teenagers and women who are living as modern-day sex slaves in Zimbabwe because they were ‘married’ when they were young.

And the numbers are growing with up to 8,000 girls a year made child brides.

Makoni first rescued a girl from her ‘husband’ with the help of the police in 2003. She was tipped off that a 10-year-old child had been given as a bride to an elder of the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect.

It took two days for them to find the girl, who was being hidden by members of the community.

“I was horrified that this was looked on as something normal, people did not see anything wrong in the ‘Holy Spirit’ giving a young girl away as a child bride. I was shocked that the whole community could hide a traumatised young girl away from the authorities, from myself and the police,” said Makoni.

Research by Maureen Sibanda of the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) pegs the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect as one of the worst perpetrators of the practice of giving away child brides.

It found that 21 per cent of married women in the country were under the age of 18.

The church has 1.3million members in Zimbabwe and it is commonplace for the men to claim child brides.

Rape is common

Makoni explained: “When they go to the church, young girls are put in a circle and their virginity is monitored. If they lose their virginity and a man steps forward to confess he has raped the girl, he can claim her as his wife. It is common for men to rape a child and then confess at the church so they can take them as a wife.”

She said children are also used as bargaining tools within the church, and fathers give their daughters up as child brides in exchange for money, cell phones, a car or – in one case – a new house. “To a large extent the problem is hidden, these communities are impossible to infiltrate, they are completely closed off from the rest of Zimbabwe emotionally, spiritually and physically.

“The marriages are not registered anywhere, and when the girls fall pregnant, they are not allowed to go to hospital. They are helped to give birth by older women in the community. Who knows how many of those babies and young mothers die because they do not have access to basic child care?

“AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are rife, but the children are not allowed to seek medical help and so they are not treated.”

And the problem is not isolated to rural areas, Makoni explained that one of the worst cases she came across was in Hatfield in Harare, where well educated, wealthy men were exchanging their daughters as child brides.

1,500 rescued

Makoni and the GCN rescued 1,500 children trapped in these marriages.

They were helped to recover from their emotional trauma and the physical damage inflicted on them in Girl Empowerment Villages. Many of the victims were also sent to schools so they could get an education.

Makoni was forced to stop her rescue missions in 2008 by the police commissioner Augustine Chihuri, who personally forbade police officers to help or take part in removing sexually abused child brides from their tormentors.

According to the RAU, the move is likely to have been political, Mugabe and other senior Zanu (PF) politicians have been trying to align themselves with the religious sects to command political support from their growing members in an attempt to win the next election.

Makoni said: “This is a crisis for Zimbabwe, we do not really know how many young girls are affected, we can only guess. The tragedy is, no one is willing to stand up and put a stop to it.”

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