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Do our girls deserve this?

© UNICEF 2013
Child marriages happen on a regular basis yet society has tended to turn a blind eye for cultural or religious reasons.

By Samson Muradzikwa (Chief of Social Policy at UNICEF Zimbabwe)

It  was reported recently in the local Press that a Mhondoro grandmother allegedly forced her 14-year-old granddaughter to marry a 47-year-old man who later raped her and infected her with HIV.

Unfortunately, this incident is not the first to be reported, nor will it be the last.

It is despicable. Yet it is but one example of how harmful social practices in this country are stealing the innocence of our children and slowly eating away at our moral fabric as a people and as a nation.

Read the facts. The latest census data shows that one in every three women aged between 20 to 49 in Zimbabwe was married before her 18th birthday. Around five percent of women aged between 15 to 49 were married before their 15th birthday. These women represent a lost opportunity. They fare poorly on all education and wealth indicators. About 20 percent of less educated women married before the age of 15 while only one percent of the educated married after that age.

Equally disturbing, 60 percent of less educated women married before the age of 18 compared to only 6 percent of women with a higher education.

Girls who marry early often abandon formal education and become pregnant.

While in 1999, the Government adopted a policy of readmitting pregnant girls into formal school after delivery, stigmatisation and the responsibilities of motherhood have negated the re-enrolment of young mothers.

Thus women who married young have a limited education. But they are also likely to be poor. Those who married before ages 15 and 18 are three times more likely to be found in poor households than those who married later. Separated from their family and friends and lacking the freedom to participate in social life, these young brides often lead a lonely existence, with major consequences on their mental and physical well-being.

This does not make for happy reading but sadly, it depicts a fact of life that cannot continue any longer.
For whatever reasons — religious, cultural or economic — young girls are being forced into marriages at a huge cost to them, their children, and the nation.

Women are the bedrock of any nation’s sustainable development. We can ill-afford religious and cultural practices that continuously force young girls into marriage. This eternally robs these girls of the right to make decent and informed decisions about when to marry and whom to marry.

But it gets worse. As the Zimbabwe Demographic and Household Survey (ZDHS) of 2011 shows, 24 percent of young women aged between 15 to 19 years began child bearing in their teens. Bearing children at a tender age exposes these mothers to greater risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications.

A March 2014 report commissioned by the Zimbabwe Youth Council on Eliminating Harmful Social and Cultural Practices Affecting Children, found early marriages to be among the top three harmful practices affecting children, the other being child prostitution and child sexual abuse.

Although the new Constitution defines a child as any person under the age of 18, the silence of the customary act on marriage makes it difficult to address child marriages.

But it could partially be addressed if all children were issued with a birth certificate as proof of age.
But reducing and eventually ending child marriages does not end with proof of age alone. It requires a multi-sectoral approach that includes educating and empowering communities to see child marriage as abusive and exploitative.

Child marriages happen on a regular basis yet society has tended to turn a blind eye for cultural or religious reasons.

This social acceptance is really unacceptable because these “marriages” are a serious form of violence against girls and need to end. They are a form of sexual abuse.


Nelson Mandela surely had these harmful practices in mind when he said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. What does the practice of marrying young girls say about us as a people, us as a nation? Heartbreaking at the very least!

Samson Muradzikwa is Chief of Social Policy at UNICEF Zimbabwe.

 

 
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