Child marriage is the enemy of all girls in Zimbabwe. About one third of Zimbabwe’s girls marry before the legal age of 18. Child marriage brings an abrupt and unnatural end to their adolescence by threatening their health, cutting short their education and imposing adult roles on them before they are physically, psychologically and emotionally prepared. Marriage imposes social isolation on girls and brings unwanted separation from her friends and family.
In the summer of 2018, WAP conducted a needs assessment of 136 women and girls in the Mbare, Epworth, Hopley, Waterfalls, and Chitungwiza communities. This revealed several major causes of child marriage: poverty, a lack of understanding of sexual and reproductive health; harmful social norms and practices; and even religion. We review these causes on this page.
The driving force behind most child marriage is poverty. Years of mismanagement have crippled Zimbabwe’s economy and caused hyper-inflation. Less than ten per cent of Zimbabweans are formally employed and many families in the underserved communities of Harare earn as little as $2 a day. The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown in 2020 have added to the misery.
Faced by this disaster, poor parents are often forced to marry daughters off to an older and richer man. They think that their daughter will be provided with a home and someone to look after her. Perhaps they also feel that she will no longer be a burden on her own family.
Reproductive health and rights
Approximately 500,000 teenagers fall pregnant every year in Zimbabwe, and 19% of the pregnancies are a result of child marriage. Adolescent pregnancy contributes to maternal and child mortality and perpetuates a vicious circle of ill-health. Once she is pregnant, a girl will have to leave school and marry. Also, most child marriages we have documented are unions between girls and adult men. This dynamic creates a power imbalance in which girls have limited ability to negotiate safe sex and make decisions about pregnancy and healthy birth spacing.
Once married, girls will be powerless to refuse sex. Child brides also find it difficult to insist on condom use by husbands who are usually older and more sexually experienced. This makes the girls vulnerable to HIV-AIDS and other STIs. Child brides are under intense pressure to fall pregnant immediately after marriage presenting a major medical risk for both mother and the baby.
According to UNFPA, only 4% of Zimbabwean girls between the ages of ten and nineteen really understand pregnancy. The same report found that sexual education in school is rare and that 43% of parents do not talk to their children about sex. Tinotenda, one of our beneficiaries from the Hopley neighborhood in Harare, married at age 17 after discovering that she was pregnant. She tells us: “My boyfriend was the one who told me that I was pregnant, I didn’t know about those things then,” When her father learned of the pregnancy, he threw her out of the house.
The Shona tribe practice several traditional practices which are extremely harmful to women and girls, and lead to child marriage.
Chigadzamapfihwa /Chimutsamapfihwa (replacement of a deceased wife): After a female relative has passed on, her young sister is given to her husband to help him look after the family and also as a token of appreciation for living well with the deceased wife. Chimutsamapfihwa is also intended to ensure that the young wife continues her sister’s roles and responsibility in the family. Despite the age of the husband and the potential for sexually transmitted diseases between the husband and the new wife, the young woman or girl has no choice.
Kuzvarira (pledging): A typical poor family will negotiate with a rich family to give them a girl child. This will take place before the child is even born. After her birth, she will then stay with her family until she is mature enough to go and live with her promised husband.
Kuripira ngodzi (appeasing the dead): This is a scenario where the family of a girl might marry her off to deal with problems, for example to pay ngozi (an avenging spirit of someone murdered by the girl’s family member/ external family member). If a chief rules on a case and finds that the girl’s family cannot not afford the number of cattle needed, the girl may be offered as payment.
Musengabere: A man identifies the girl he likes and wants to be his wife. He studies her movement patterns, typically in situations when she is unaware as when she is collecting firewood or fetching water. The man will pick her up and run as fast as he can before the family of the girl notices her absence. Upon arrival to his home, the man will send word to the girl’s family that she has lain with him and he would like to marry her. The girl will be encouraged to accept him and roora (bride price) proceedings will begin.
Kutema ugariri: This occurs when a man cannot afford to pay lobola (bride price) with the usual form of payment such cows or money. Instead, he will offer his labor for an agreed period of time at the house of his in-laws, or in their fields. At the end of the period the man will claim his bride and start a family with her.
Sadly, a culture of silence against such abuses has also become the norm, particularly among the abused women and girls.
Religious norms have become another factor that has negatively affected women and girls in Zimbabwe. For instance, senior church members of the apostolic sect known as White Garment will encourage girls as young as ten to marry much older men for “spiritual guidance”. Elders in the church are viewed by the congregation as entitled to marry girls in order to shield them from premarital sex.
Social norms and prejudices
One woman we spoke to, Angeline, was forced to marry at age seventeen after her aunt spotted her out with a boyfriend. Angeline’s family suspected that she might be sexually active and forced her to marry the boy to preserve their reputation.
Discriminatory social norms which link a girl’s perceived “purity” to her family’s honor are among the factors which push girls into marriage. We have seen that young women and girls who become pregnant, stay out late, are seen in the company of a suspected boyfriend, or are otherwise thought to be sexually active are often forced into marriage.
This analysis of child marriage leads us to conclude that four elements must be included in any program to fight child marriage in Zimbabwe. First, poor families must earn an income. Second, we must provide sexual health education. Third, we must counter harmful social norms and traditional practices. Finally, we must provide girls with the confidence to resist early marriage. Our program in 2020-2021 will include all four strategies.