Former Child Brides Take Zimbabwe Government To Court Over Marriage Laws

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When you think of your childhood, images of playing in the sun, freedom, toys, school and friends often get conjured. But imagine if you grew up in a part of the world where you were expected or forced to be married to some strange man more than three times your age. Childhood for many girls in the world does not make them reminisce about happy times.

According to statistics, one third of the girls in developing countries are married before the age of 18, and 1 in 9 are married by the age of 15. If present trends continue, approximately 140 million girls will be married before their 18th birthday over the next decade. That’s an average of 14 million girls each year.

This affects the rest of her life because as the research shows, girls who are married underage are more likely to get pregnant, suffer from health complications and not get the right help they need, and many of these girls go through life without getting an education to be able to know about the disastrous effects of underage marriage, until they go through it themselves. Poverty and violence are also major issues involved in child marriage, and although it would be assumed that this is a religious practice, studies have shown it is not.

The majority of child brides in the world are found in West and Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia. Child and underage marriage is considered a human rights violation by the United Nations, and many individual countries around the world. While some are able to uphold the law, there are many areas where this awful cultural practice which effectively limits a girl’s future is allowed to continue in broad daylight.

One of the countries that has a complicated take on child marriage is Zimbabwe. According to a 2012 report based on data collected by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) during the years 2000 to 2011, the country’s prevalence of child marriage was at 31%, and was among 41 nations with the highest rates of child marriages and sits at number 39.

Zimbabwe’s constitution does protect against child marriage, but it is not heavily enforced. The Marriage Act sets the minimum age for girls to be married at 16, and boys at 18. Not only is that already discriminatory (why can’t girls be 18 as well?) but the Customary Marriage Act has set no minimum age limit, which is where a lot of violators take advantage.

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But there may be legislative and constitutional change on the horizon thanks to the daring courage of two young women.

Loveness Mudzuru, 20, and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, 19 are both former child brides who have taken the Zimbabwean government to court in a bid to force them to see the failure of the current law to protect girls from being trapped into lives of poverty and abuse.

“I’ve faced so many challenges. My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible,” said Ruvimbo, a mother of one, who was married at 15.

“When I got pregnant, I did not even understand that I was pregnant,” she said in the court application. “If I were to be given a chance I would advise every young girl to stay away from men and only seek to engage in sex well after the age of 28 and perhaps after attainment of a degree and years of working…. In short my life is hell,”

“I want to take this action to make a difference. There are a lot of children getting married,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a statement about what the pair are doing.

The case is being heard in the Constitutional Court where the girls say they want the law to be embedded into the Zimbabwe constitution as well as fall in line with international treaties banning child marriage.

The 2013 version of the country’s constitution says every child under 18 has the right to parental care, education and protection from “economic and sexual exploitation”. It does not set a minimum marriage age, but states that no one should be forced to marry against their will and indicates that 18 is the minimum age for starting a family.

The Reuters report states that many parents see girls as a financial burden and often have them married off at an early age to ease that strain. Others see early marriage as a way to prevent pre-marital sex, yet fail to recognize that forcing an under-developed girl to have sex with a man much much older than her can create lasting health problems.

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“Young girls who marry early and often in poor families are then forced to produce young children in a sea of poverty and the cycle begins again,” said Loveness, who was married at 16 and had 2 children before she turned 18. She is now a divorcee.

“My life is really tough. Raising a child when you are a child yourself is hard. I should be going to school.”

Unlike many other African countries and under-developed nations where female illiteracy rates outweigh that of the males, Zimbabwe boasts not only the highest literacy rates in the continent (90%) but the number of illiterate men actually outweigh that of women, 51% to 49%. This is quite unusual for a male-dominated country. And although it is encouraging not to read a disproportionately discriminatory report about illiteracy rates for women, the fact remains that the problems associated with child marriage fall mainly on the girls.

What Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi are doing is trying to break the cycle that has been allowed to continue generation after generation.

The girls’ lawyer, former finance minister Tendai Biti, presented the legal challenge in January. Beatrice Savadye, who heads rights group ROOTS which is backing the ground-breaking case, said it had generated a lot of interest both inside Zimbabwe and in other countries in the region. She said it was unclear when the court would give its decision, but that it had to rule within six months.

We’re hoping for a positive outcome that will not only affect the lives of underage girls in the country, but will enable the rest of the country to see what an asset an educated, mature and healthy girl is to her society and family economically.

Here’s to the unlikely yet bold young female heroes around the world being willing to upset the norms for the cause of social justice and creating a more equal society.

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