“Create safe houses for survivors of child marriages”

Child rights activists and local legislators have called upon the government and the donor community to put together plans to create safe houses for survivors of child marriages and girls who are at risk of becoming child brides. The remarks come at a time when there have been increased reports of survivors of child marriages failing to secure protection services, phsychological care and educational opportunities.

Kwanisai Mafa

Kwanisai Mafa

Cases of child marriages in Zimbabwe have been on an upward trend lately with the country touted as one of the nations in Africa with with a high prevalence rate that is pegged at 31 percent. A survey by ZIMSTAT indicates that one in three women aged 20 to 49 who were interviewed reported that they married before the age 18. On the other hand, an estimated 4 percent married before the age of 15, the survey found. The United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, which researched on the current scope, prevalence and inequities associated with child marriages, has also already warned that  that by 2020, Some 142 million girls worldwide will be married by their 18th birthday if current trends continue.

Child marriage jeopardizes girls’ rights and stands in the way of girls living educated, healthy and productive lives. It also excludes girls from fundamental decisions, such as the timing of marriage and choice of spouse. When girls marry early, they also  often drop out of school, have more children over their lifetime, are at greater risk of HIV infection and intimate partner violence. They also face serious health complications and even death from early pregnancy and childbearing.

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.

It is against this background that child rights activists and legislators in the Midlands province are calling upon the government and the donor community to establish safe houses for survivors of child marriages and girls who are at risk of becoming child brides.

Midlands State Univeristy based child rights activist Kwanisai Mafa said safe houses especially in rural areas are critical in that they offer survivors of child marriages protection services and an opportunity to re-start their lives.

“The initiative of creating safe houses for survivors of child marriages is very noble and long overdue , because being survivors these children need to be pyschological prepared to be intergrated back into normal lives after the trauma . They need some kind of counselling and some re-assurance that they can still start afresh and achieve their dreams,” he said.

He added that survivors of child marriages may find it difficult to shape a better future if they are made to stay in the same environment with perpetrators.

“Once a girl survives a child marriage situation, there is need for her to have a place away from the perpetrator where she can be protected while the case is being worked out. You cannot have a situation where the survivor still lives at the same place where there is the perpetrator,” he said.

Psychological care is also another service that can be offered at a safe house, added Mafa.

“For a girl who has been rescued from an early marriage set-up, there is need to have her given psychological care. This helps her to have an easy way of picking up her life and progressing strongly.Without  mental strength, they cannot move on with life easily,” he said.

Timothy Mpofu, another child rights activist said:

“Child Security, personal liberty and dignity are paramount and must be respected without compromising. It then follows that the child must be brought up within the family union. The child should be protected from all forms of violence. Such homes should be the last option. If the safe houses are not there then it becomes a violation of the child’s rights and also violation of the the Zimbabwe Constitutional provisions. In this regard, safe houses must be created for the survivors of child marriages and those girls who are at the danger of being married while still very young.s”

Gweru Urban MP Sessil Zvidzai said if created, the safe houses can also go a long way in offering legal aid to survivors of child marriages to cancel their marriges and push for divorce. He also said  girls at risk of becoming child brides could also get legal assistance at the safe houses.

“Girls who are survivors of child marriage or are at risk of becoming child brides need a place where they can access legal aid to help them annul their marriages or receive a divorce through the justice system. The provision of legal aid accessed at the safe houses could also enable girls to take their cases to court which contributes to protecting their rights and strengthens the justice system through law enforcement,” he said.

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