By Thomas Madhuku
HARARE – From as early as she can remember, Mariah Myambo (not her real name), 16, had dreams to pursue her education, attain a degree, get a decent job and be happily married to someone she loved.
But the death of her parents in 2011 threw her life off balance.
She was emotionally adrift in the wreckage of lost love, lost support and guidance; and suffered a shattered identity.
Mariah and her siblings were forced to relocate from Harare where they had a reasonable life, to Chipinge, a rural district in eastern Zimbabwe, where she came face-to-face with stinking poverty.
She stopped attending school, and leapt into the status of a grown up.She was barely old enough, but had to carry the burden of looking after her siblings.
With little or no choice, Mariah was forced to marry a kombi driver at a tender age because of poverty and the desire to get something to take care of her siblings.
“We used to stay in Harare, but after the death of our father, we moved to Chipinge as our mother could not afford rentals in town,” she says, with tears welling up in her eyes.
“As if that was not enough, 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 oldest child, she found herself having to fend for her siblings and this meant she had to drop out of school to do menial jobs in the village — including cultivating other people’s fields.
Mariah said she realised that her boyfriend had another wife after she fell pregnant.
“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 and my siblings who still look up to me are at risk of falling into the same mistake I made,” she says.
Mariah’s case is one of many cases of early child marriages.
The media has in recent years been replete with reports of children tying matrimonial bonds at a tender age to the dismay of moralists.
A few weeks ago, an elderly couple in the southern parts of Zimbabwe allegedly married off their 15-year-old granddaughter so they could get a bag of mealie-meal and R500.
The story further alleged the grandparents reached an agreement with another middle-aged man to give him their granddaughter as a wife in exchange for food and money.
The man is said to have offered to pay lobola of R564 and a bag of mealie-meal to which the couple agreed.
This trend has given rise the hue and cry against the vice which in essence is a fundamental violation of child rights. Child experts say child marriage is a violation of human rights which 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 — including orphans to get married to escape from the trappings of poverty,” 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 Chapter 5:11 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,” the child rights activist says.
“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 mentioned above to the new Constitution which describes a child as a person below the age of 18, and calls for protection of children from all forms of abuse.”
Says Grace Chirenje of the Zimbabwe Young Women Network for Peace Building: “With the prevailing harsh economic times, it is clear that parents are also mortgaging their daughters to cushion themselves against such difficult times.”
Developing alternative income generating strategies for parents and even 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, the causes and make recommendations.
In its report titled, Married Too Soon: Child Marriage in Zimbabwe, a local research organisation, Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) noted that early marriages are caused by poverty, beliefs, religion, impunity, tradition and teenage sex.
Poverty, which is rearing its ugly head in Zimbabwe following over a decade-long economic crisis, has increased the vulnerability of young girls who are forced into marriage as a means of eradicating food shortage in their households.
Another study conducted by Medicins sans Frontieres Belgium-Zimbabwe mission and the University of Zimbabwe’s Centre for Applied Social Sciences also established that poverty makes young girls and women more vulnerable.
In 2012, the then Education, Sports, Arts and Culture minister, David Coltart hinted that over 50 percent of young girls in secondary schools were being forced to drop out because of various reasons, chief among these being the unavailability of funds and societal preference to educate the boy child.
Between 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls around the world will become child brides, according to United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
It further says if current levels of child marriages hold, 14,2 million girls annually or 39 000 daily will marry too young.
Furthermore, of the 140 million girls who will marry before they reach 18, 50 million will be under the age of 15.
“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 and end child marriage.”
Ending child marriage is closely related to efforts to reach Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 3,4 and five to promote gender equality, to reduce child mortality and to improve maternal health.
And, for now, it seems, the continued occurrence of child marriages in Zimbabwe and Africa will make it impossible for the countries to attain these MDGs by 2015.