Child marriage is a major development threat in the lives of girls and young women worldwide. It fuels adolescent pregnancy, forces girls out of school and perpetuates a recurrence of poverty through disempowering girls and impairing their economic resilience. Today one out of nine girls is forced into marriage before age 15 worldwide and births to girls under age 15 are projected to nearly double in Sub-Saharan Africa in the next 17 years, from 2 million a year today to about 3 million a year in 2030. This projection is set to be a reality in the next few decades unless adequate actions are taken to address practices that drive adolescent pregnancies, particularly child marriage.
Zimbabwe has a dual legal system that allows for child marriage in customary law and yet speaks against it in statutory law. This duality has caused disproportionally high rates of child marriage in rural areas and corresponding high rates of teenage pregnancy. Child marriage persists in rural areas chiefly because of prevailing religious and cultural norms that allow it to take place as an acceptable practice. These norms include arranged marriages, pledging girls to families to appease ancestral spirits, and poverty driven trade-offs in which girls are sold off in marriage by poor families in exchange for livestock and money. Child marriage will continue legally in Zimbabwe under customary law if action is not taken from traditional leaders who judge and enforce laws in the rural areas.
An analysis carried out by a Zimbabwean research unit on child marriage, identified that governments are often either unable to enforce existing laws, or rectify discrepancies between national laws on marriage age and entrenched customary and religious laws. This is because of the “official tolerance of cultural, societal, and customary norms that shape and govern the institution of marriage and family life”. This problem is further compounded by the fact that the family is the custodian of culture, and some cultural practices – such as the payment of bride price – often expose the girl child to other harmful cultural practices like child marriage.
As a result, the median age of a first marriage in Zimbabwe has been declining from 19 years for women currently aged 45-49 years to 16 years for those aged 15-19 years. Additionally, 32 percent of the women aged 20-49 years old who are currently married or in a union were married before 18 years of age (rural areas 39%, and urban areas 21%). Consequently, the adolescent fertility rate has increased to 115 births per 1,000 women aged 15-19 years – up from 99 in 2005/6. Rural teenagers, those with less education, and those from the poorest sections of society, tend to start childbearing earlier than their urban, educated, wealthier counterparts.”
Reporter: Mr Onward Chironda