Chiefs lead campaign to end child marriages

Traditional community leaders in the Midlands province have embarked on progressive measures that are aimed at ending child marriages in their areas of jurisdiction. The development comes amid rising cases of early marriages for the girl child in the rural parts of the country.

Chief Njelele of Gokwe South

Chief Njelele of Gokwe South

Zimbabwe joined the AU Campaign to end child marriages in mid-2015. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development with support from UNICEF, UNWOMEN, UNFPA, the Child Rights and Women’s Rights Coalitions has been working on a National Action Plan to End Child Marriages and its related communication for development activities. The Constitutional Court ruling of January 2016 has been an impetus to move the agenda forward.   All these efforts are part of the global campaign to end child marriages.

In the Midlands province, Chief Njelele of Gokwe South and his counterpart Chief Gambiza in Chiundura have taken the bull by its horn and rolled out programmes to end the illegal practice. Chief Njelele has introduced a programme in which schools in the area have been favoured with secret alert lines commonly known as suggestion boxes. These lines are aimed at alerting the traditional leader of any cases of child marriages in his community in a way that does not expose whistle-blowers to victimisation by perpetrators.

“There is a lot of fear among people in as far as reporting bad practises like child marriages and so we thought that if we could introduce the secret measures of doing so, people would be free to tell us of the cases. Once we get to know of the cases, we would then follow up and make the law take its course both at our traditional court and those that are formal,” he said.

Apart from this measure, Chief Njelele has also facilitated Focus Group Discussions (FGDs) in order to ensure that villagers in his area get a platform to talk about the need to end child marriages. A focus group discussion is a good way to gather together people from similar backgrounds or experiences to discuss a specific topic of interest. The group of participants is guided by a moderator (or group facilitator) who introduces topics for discussion and helps the group to participate in a lively and natural discussion amongst themselves.

The strength of FGD relies on allowing the participants to agree or disagree with each other so that it provides an insight into how a group thinks about an issue, about the range of opinion and ideas, and the inconsistencies and variation that exists in a particular community in terms of beliefs and their experiences and practices.

On the other hand, Chief Gambiza has rolled out another strategy that is set to go a long way in reducing cases of child marriages in the area.

“Here in Chiundura we are making frequent checks at schools with the assistance of headmasters so that we pick up cases of absenteeism of the girl child. For instance, if we go to a particular school, we would ask the authorities to give us names of girls who have been absent from school for a suspicious period. Once we get the names, we would then follow up with their parents and guardians. Once we find out the girl would have been forced into early marriage, we take the necessary measures to reverse the illegal union,” he said.

Headman Makamure, from the same area, reiterated that the strategy is proving to be effective because the cases are now declining. He added that as the traditional leaders in the community, they will not tire in their efforts to end child marriages.

“We are determined to end child marriages in our area and we intend to keep going in as far as fighting the scourge is concerned. We also urge other traditional leaders to take a leaf from our campaign,” he said.

During a Girls Summit held in Zambia, last year, it emerged that Chiefs are crucial in ending child marriages and other harmful traditional practices in Africa. Making her presentation on Changing Attitudes Towards harmful traditional practices, United Nations Population Fund Ambassador, Senior Chief Chikumbu of Mulanje, Malawi said chiefs are custodians of culture and therefore they have great influence in ending child marriages in their communities. She also highlighted that the chiefs also have unique networks in their communities that can be used to end harmful practices.

Chief Chikumbu called upon governments and the donor community to consider working with traditional leaders in rural areas in the fight to end child marriages.

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