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» » » » » Tipping scales – Hunger defeats laws to end child marriage

Itai Muzondo

Wide spread hunger has been a challenge facing Zimbabwe for almost a decade now and Chivi district in Masvingo province has been recorded as one of the most affected areas.
 To save her family from the striking hunger, Faith Mundere (not real name) was forced to return 'favours' her father got from Operation Maguta officials who gave him maize meal time and again in exchange for love
Little did she know she would get pregnant at 15.
"I thought my love affair was just meant to facilitate presence of food in our home. My parents had no problem with my relationship because they received food. We depended on farming but with the recurring droughts, we were exposed to hunger" said Faith.
"Before end of 2008, I was pregnant. Little did I know I would get in a fix to protect my lover from getting arrested because he fed my family? I simply told people from his area he was my uncle. I was hurt inside but I had no choice because my parents were benefiting and content of the arrangement," she added.
Faith, now 23, had therefore involuntarily entered a marriage to serve her family from the ravaging hunger and told this publication that if she could turn back the hands of time, she would.
In a 2016 study carried out by UNICEF, 34 -30 percent of women in Zimbabwe aged between 20 – 24 years old were married or in some union before they were eighteen years old.
According to the 2012 census, 56 799 children aged 15-17 years were married, with a greater proportion of girls having been married than boys.
Many families in Zimbabwe consider girls as a source of income. The practice of early marriages has subjected girls to acute poverty and the risk of health challenges.
"We never really thought of her future. We were forced to override the law because of hunger. Now she is not the daughter I dreamt of. I curse myself every time I look at her. I do wish her the best now that she has been dumped by that man," said Faith's mother before bursting into tears.
"We knew it was illegal to hand over a girl below the age of 16 for marriage. It was however our one way ticket to evading hunger. Neighbours asked, but we simply told them the gentleman was my brother and we sent her away from Chivi when she got pregnant so that neighbours would not recognize anything. That way, he was protected," she added.
Another victim of early child marriages, Emmaculate Pinda (25) was barely 16 when she got married. She is now a mother of five.
Also coming from Chivi, Pinda told TellZim News that as a young woman, her marriage was not out of choice. She said she was pushed into the marriage by poverty.
"I eloped to become a second wife after the man convinced me that he would take care of me and my family.
"The marriage was not rosy because polygamy has its own challenges. My husband died when I was carrying our fifth baby," she said.
"My late husband's relatives wanted me to remarry one of my husband's brothers as a fifth wife and I refused."
She was then chased from the homestead and her life became even worse.
"I then left my late husband's homestead and started vending as a way to make living but I am failing. My children are not going to school, and public events are an opportunity for us to eat decent meals," she added.
Education can help protect against child marriage, but research shows that many girls drop out of school and get married because their families cannot afford school costs. Nearly all the child brides, according to Human Rights Watch, were not able to continue their education after marriage, either because of their financial situation, their husbands would not permit it, or they had to care for the baby.
Many indigenous apostolic churches also forbid girls to continue education after marriage. One church elder in the Johane Marange apostolic church in Masvingo once said: "Formal education is not important because the church will teach her the necessary skills to work with her hands and provide for her family. Skills like weaving baskets and mats to sell."
Human rights defenders have however criticised such practices.
"Such situations are still visible in societies we visit discouraging child marriages. The areas include Mwenezi, Chivi and Chiredzi. We have since urged communities to join hands with law enforcers and report any suspected case of child marriages.
"We have also observed that most girls will be running away from the raging hunger and some are pushed to marry by their parents as solutions to acute socio-economic challenges," said My Age Zimbabwe director, Onward Chironda.
"Parents are not hesitant to break the law by having their under-age children married as long as it brings food to their tables. The high levels of poverty we are facing as a nation have led to people sacrificing the law for the stomach," added Christian Voice International – Zimbabwe President, Pastor Tafumanei Zenda.
A 2016 action plan towards ending child marriages by UNICEF also notes that most women who got into early marriages escaping poverty had short-lived happiness as they would see themselves in the same mess within a short time. 
"…it is also worrying that 4 159 children aged 15-17 years had divorced/separated, whilst 456 were widowed. Rural areas had a higher proportion of married children, than urban areas. The proportions of married children increased with age, with 17 year olds having the highest proportions," the action plan reads.
Beatrice Nyamupinga, Chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Gender, says a lot needs to be done if child marriages are to be combated.
"We have done research on causes of child marriages and poverty, unemployment and a harsh economic environment were other contributors to the challenge. We are however looking forward to push government to enact strict measures that will make people desist from having even sexual relationships with children below 18. This should be accompanied by combating acute poverty," said Nyamupinga.
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.

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