The Sunday News
Sukulwenkosi Dube-Matutu, Matabeleland South Bureau Chief
WHILE the fight to end early child marriages requires the involvement of every member of the community, some elderly men continue to prey on teenagers and turn them into wives, in the process destroying their future.
In an incident that left the community of Gwanda shocked, 14-year-old Sikhulile Sibanda, a victim of an early child marriage, died after enduring eight months of a severe illness caused by giving birth at an early age. Sikhulile from the Lumene area in Gwanda got pregnant at the age of 13 in April last year by a 27-year-old Munashe Ncube who had eloped with her. The teenager was supposed to start Form One last year.
Her family reported her disappearance only to learn that Sikhulile and Ncube had been found in the Inyathi area after she had given birth. After giving birth, Sikhulile developed a heart problem and suffered damages to her internal organs as a result of prolonged labour. She was hospitalised on several occasions up until she died in South Africa where she was living under the care of her mother.
In another incident which occurred last year, Silindokuhle Sibanda (15) from Gwanda died after being brutally assaulted by her 31-year-old lover who had turned her into his wife. The man, Thandazani Ncube, took Silondokuhle from her father’s homestead by force and went to stay with her at his parent’s homestead. During their stay together, Ncube constantly assaulted Silindokuhle but she could not leave him as she feared for her life and the life of her family which stays in the same village.
Matabeleland Institute for Human Rights (MIHR), co-ordinator Mr Khumbulani Maphosa said there was need for men, who are the perpetrators, to understand that their actions are a violation of the rights of these children. He said people need to be educated until men see it as abnormal to take an under-age child as their wife.
Mr Maphosa said even community members who see a child being taken as a bride have to view the act as an abomination and report the matter to authorities. He said traditional leaders also have to take a leading role in fighting this scourge which is destroying the lives of many teenage girls.
“Unfortunately some men turn these young children into wives and see nothing wrong with it. They go on to have children with them. Some relatives and community members watch these horrific developments and unfortunately don’t take a stand against them. The rights of these children would have been strongly violated and unfortunately those who have to protect them standby and watch.
“A man should see that teenage girl as his daughter, niece or younger sister instead of harming her. Mind you, at that age, a child can’t make an informed decision and is susceptible to manipulation. You hear some men giving an excuse that the victim would have consented. At that age a teenager won’t be fully aware of the consequences of that so-called consent,” he said.
Mr Maphosa said a lot of work must be done to educate men so that they understand the consequences of their actions. The director of Restoration of Hope, a children’s organisation, Mr Clive Simango, said the sexual abuse which teenagers experience causes severe physical and emotional damage. He said their future is destroyed and the cycle of poverty continues in some families.
Mr Simango said unfortunately, this reckless behaviour by grown men can lead to tragedy.
“Having sexual relations with children has far reaching consequences which can affect the survivors even when they are adults. It’s unfortunate that the perpetrators tend to ignore such critical issues. If we had every man protecting these teenagers instead of harming them, then that would make a huge difference,” he said.
Mr Simango said while girls were continuously being educated on the importance of reporting sexual abuse, men also have to be continuously engaged on the consequences and gravity of their actions. He said various platforms such as community meetings can be used as a platform for educating men.
“Men can be sensitive at times and if you call them to a meeting specifically to talk about these issues, a number turn up. Different platforms such as community meetings and other gatherings can be used as a platform to engage men. This activity has to be done continuously with the aim of changing the perspective of men,” he said.
Padare/ Enkundleni Men’s Forum on Gender programmes officer, Mr Ziphongezipho Ndebele said there was need to incorporate and involve men more in the fight to end child marriages and teenage pregnancies. He said men have to normalise speaking up against child marriages and teenage pregnancies. Mr Ndebele said men occupy most leadership roles in society and have to use their influence to spread the word on various platforms.
“If men take a stand and speak out against gender based violence, then we will have less men committing these offences and more making efforts to protect women and children,” he said.
Child marriages, child sexual exploitation and teenage pregnancies remain a major concern not only in Zimbabwe but the world over. Child marriage is now firmly on the global development agenda, most prominently through its inclusion in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) target five which calls for the elimination of the practice by 2030. SDG five seeks to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Child marriage is most prevalent in the poorest households, among them with little or no education in rural areas. It robs girls of their childhood and forces them to adopt adult roles and responsibilities.
According to the Unicef June 2022 statistical report on child marriages, eastern and southern Africa are among the regions with the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world. Nearly one third of the region’s young women were married under the age of 18. An estimated 650 million girls and women around the world were married before the age of 18. Over 50 million of them reside in eastern and southern Africa, with most being reported in Ethiopia with 17,3 million. Zimbabwe accounted for 1,4 million.
In Zimbabwe, one in three young women were married in union at childhood. A total of 241 000 girls and women were married or in union before age 15 while 1,4 million were married or in union before age 18.
To address that, Government has enacted the Marriages Act No.1 of 2022, which, among other provisions, criminalises child marriages. The Marriages Act was passed by Parliament and signed into law by President Mnangagwa in March last year. According to the Act, no person under the age of 18 may contract a marriage or enter into an unregistered customary law marriage or a civil partnership.