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Zimbabwe, 1 October 2015: Former child bride tells her story of how she married a stranger

“When my parents first told me that I had to fend for my life I was stunned. They told me I was no longer their responsibility and I was ripe for marriage,” Madeline recalls, sitting at David Small Farm in Bindura, one hour from Zimbabwe’s capital Harare.

“My life suddenly took a turn for the worst as I had to go and be someone’s wife. I completely had no say in what was happening in my life at this point,” Madeline says with tears welling in her eyes.

“This was not what I wanted with my life. I actually wanted to finish school and become someone of value to myself and the community. Since then, I have never been happy.”

Although Madeline is still staying with her husband, she tells us that she has never been happy for the past eight years.

Wearing a blue T-shirt and carrying her black satchel, she has a nervous and sad manner about her.

When we met her, she was attending the Community Sensitization Programme organized by ROOTS a local non-governmental organization working with UNICEF to reduce child marriages in Mashonaland Central Province – one of the hot spots for child marriages in Zimbabwe. It is not difficult to see how she looks older than her age – she is only 24 years old.

Early marriages are common in Zimbabwe’s farming communities where they are high levels of poverty. But this practice is no longer confined to rural areas, it is a problem that is also increasingly affecting urban areas.

According to the 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), 33 per cent of girls in Zimbabwe are forced into marriage before their 18th birthday every year – causing their childhoods to come to a sudden and unexpected end.

Madeline is desperate to escape her married life but fears of the unknown keep her in the marriage. Poverty and tradition are said to be behind this practice, which is most common in rural areas. Parents see their daughters as a source of income and even wealth, those opposed to the practice say.

But even here, some are beginning to speak out against the practice. Chief Chisveto of Bindura wants young girls to be kept in school. He has on several occasions summoned his subjects to meetings to deal with this issue. The villagers know the consequences of marrying off their young girls.

“In my area of jurisdiction, the stance which I have taken is that no parent shall force a girl below the age of 18 to be married. A parent who does that will be severely punished,” he says.

Traditional leaders who denounce early marriage are usually frowned upon by those who believe they are defying old customs and norms that have been passed on from generation to generation.

But the chief's conviction seems unrelenting.

“I feel that in our communities there are certain customs and cultural practices that are good and some are bad – this has to stop,” Chief Chisveto says.

Those forced into child marriage feel the effects for the rest of their lives.

ROOTS says child marriage traps girls and their families in a “cycle of poverty”.

“Girls who marry young do not receive the educational and economic opportunities that help lift them and their families out of poverty,” says Beatrice Savadye, Director of ROOTS.

“We need to change the way families and communities view a girl. The girl-child needs to be seen as a full human being with dreams, aspirations and with the ability to thrive to the highest potential just like a boy-child,” adds Savadye.

The World Health Organization estimates that girls who become pregnant before they are 15 years old are five times more likely to die while giving birth.

In Bindura and Shamva, ROOTS with support from UNICEF is working with traditional leaders, communities and girls who have been forced into marriages.

With her voice trembling, Madeline sums up her dilemma.

“Sometimes it is hard to defy our parents because it is disrespectful, but we cannot continue to allow them to make choices that are bad for us,” she says.

It was my wish to finish school and become a nurse but I guess that will never happen because my husband has clearly said he will not allow me to do so.”

 

 
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