Early marriage robs girls of their future

Sixteen-year-old Mariah Myambo had always dreamt of getting a degree, finding a good job and then marrying someone she loved. THOMAS MADHUKU hears how many young girls are being denied the future they so desperately wanted.

Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects – Babatunde Osotimehin.
Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects – Babatunde Osotimehin.

The death of Mariah’s parents in 2011 changed everything for the young girl. She was emotionally adrift, without love or guidance, and forced to relocate from Harare with her brothers and sisters.

In rural Chipinge, they came face to face with humiliating poverty. Mariah stopped attending school and had to become a grown-up virtually overnight.

With little or no choice, Mariah was forced to marry a kombi driver in a bid to support her siblings.

“After the death of our father we moved to Chipinge as our mother could not afford the rent in town,” says Mariah. “Then our mother also passed away leaving us in the hands of irresponsible relatives who abandoned us and even grabbed our father’s piece of land.”

Being the eldest child, she found herself having to fend for her siblings, and this meant that she had to drop out of school to do menial jobs in the village, including cultivating people’s fields.

It was only after Mariah found out she was pregnant that she also discovered the father of her child already had a wife.

“I was forced into marriage by circumstances and my reason was to escape poverty, but the situation has not changed because my husband’s first wife controls all the money. My siblings, who still look up to me, are at risk of falling into the same mistakes I made,” she says.

Mariah’s case is one of many cases of early child marriages.

A few weeks ago, a daily paper reported that an elderly couple in the southern part of Zimbabwe had allegedly married off their 15-year-old granddaughter so they could get a bag of mealie-meal and R500.

A community elder in Chisumbanje, Mudikani Chauke, believes that early marriages are ruining the future of young girls’ future and are a stumbling block towards the eradication of poverty in society.

“When a child is married without a qualification, it means the cycle of poverty continues, so we need to break that by encouraging children to prioritise education before marriage,” he says.

Chauke singled out families headed by children and those economically impoverished as the most vulnerable, and called for government intervention through education support programmes.

Artwell Sithole, another villager, also blames poverty, saying it is the chief driving factor to all the ills facing rural communities.

He says the government needs to establish more schools to make them more within reach of children, who often have to travel long distances.

‘In some cases, students have to walk more than 12km to get to school and this has resulted in countless cases of drop-outs,” he says.

Sithole adds that those students who live far from schools often opt to rent rooms in the nearby villages.

“This has its own problems as they end up indulging in reckless behaviour and sexual activities that lead to early pregnancies,” he says.

Child experts say child marriage is a violation of human rights that compromises the development of girls and often results in early pregnancy and social isolation.

They say young married girls face onerous domestic burdens, constrained decision-making and reduced life choices.

Caleb Mtandwa, a child rights activist with the Harare-based Justice for Children, says religion, culture and poverty are fuelling child marriages in the country.

“Poverty is forcing children from poor families to get married to escape their circumstances,” he says.

He says age-based discrimination towards girls takes place in the form of child marriages, where the minimum age for marriage in terms of the Marriage Act is 16 for girls and 18 for boys.

“The Customary Marriages Act Chapter 5:07 does not set a minimum age of marriage for girls,” says Mtwanda.

“Besides exacerbating the problem of child marriage, there is discrimination between those girls governed by general law and customary law. Young girls are frequently married off on the pretext that custom allows that.

“We now want the government to take steps to address these causes and align the laws to the new constitution, which describes a child as a person below 18 years and calls for protection of children from all forms of abuse.”

Says Grace Chirenje of the Zimbabwe Young Women’s Network for Peace-Building: “With the prevailing harsh economic times it is clear that parents are also mortgaging their daughters to cushion themselves against difficulties.”

Developing alternative income generating strategies for parents and even for children themselves, she suggests, may be one way to solve the child marriage problem.

A number of demographic and household surveys have been done in the country to determine the prevalence of child marriages and the causes, and to make recommendations.

In its 2011 report titled, Married Too Soon: Child Marriage in Zimbabwe, a local research organisation, Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) noted that early marriages were caused by poverty, beliefs, religion, impunity, tradition and teenage sex.

Another study conducted by Médecins Sans Frontières Belgium-Zimbabwe mission and the University of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Applied Social Sciences also established that poverty made young girls and women more vulnerable.

In 2012, the then minister of education, sports, arts and culture, David Coltart, said that more than 50 per cent of young girls in secondary schools were being forced to drop out. Chief among the reasons was the lack of funds and societal preference to educate boys.

Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140m girls will become child brides, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). Of those, 50m will be under the age of 15. It further says that, if current levels of child marriages hold, 14.2m girls a year will marry too young.

“Child marriage is an appalling violation of human rights and robs girls of their education, health and long-term prospects,” says Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UNFPA.

“A girl who is married as a child is one whose potential will not be fulfilled. Since many parents and communities also want the very best for their daughters, we must work together to end child marriage.”

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