Set 18 as Minimum Age; Adopt National Action Plan
NEW YORK, United States of America, November 25, 2015
Child marriage in Africa often ends a girl’s education, exposes her to domestic violence and grave health risks from early childbearing and HIV, and traps her in poverty, Human Rights Watch said today. Zimbabwe’s government should lead by example at the African Union Girls’ Summit on Ending Child Marriage and pledge to set and enforce 18 as the minimum legal age for marriage.
The summit, in Lusaka, Zambia, on November 26 and 27, 2015, will highlight the devastating effects of child marriage in sub-Saharan Africa, where 40 percent of girls marry before 18, and seek to secure commitments from governments to end the practice. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, is currently the African Union chairperson.
“The Zimbabwean government should show that it is serious about tackling the scourge of child marriage and raise the minimum age to 18,” said Dewa Mavhinga, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The future of millions of African girls depends on African leaders taking action to end a devastating practice that robs girls of education and exposes them to abuse.”
In a 2014 survey by Zimbabwe’s National Statistics Agency, one in three women ages 20 to 49 surveyed reported that they married before age 18; an estimated 4 percent marry before age 15, the survey found. Since most child marriages are unregistered customary law unions, the survey is the best indicator of the scale of the problem in Zimbabwe.
Between October 13 and November 10, Human Rights Watch interviewed 35 women and girls who were child brides in six provinces – Matabeleland South, Masvingo, Midlands, Mashonaland East, Mashonaland Central, and Harare – as well as two dozen government officials, lawyers, experts, and religious and traditional leaders.
Zimbabwe has conflicting legal provisions on the minimum age for marriage. Zimbabwe’s constitution does not expressly prohibit child marriage, and a number of laws effectively condone it. The gaps in the law, extreme poverty, poor access to education, and harmful religious beliefs and social norms fuel child marriage in Zimbabwe, Human Rights Watch found.
Child marriage is common in indigenous apostolic churches, charismatic evangelical groupings which mix Christian beliefs with traditional cultures and have approximately 1.2 million followers across the country. The Zimbabwe Council of Churches and the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe acknowledge that the practice was more prevalent among apostolic followers than other religious groups. A midwife who is a member of the Johwane Masowe Shonhiwa apostolic church told Human Rights Watch that church doctrine requires girls to marry between ages 12 and 16 to prevent sexual relations outside marriage. “As soon as a girl reaches puberty, any man in the church can claim her for his wife,” she said.
Archbishop Johannes Ndanga, president of the Apostolic Churches Council of Zimbabwe, a coalition of over 1,000 indigenous apostolic churches, told Human Rights Watch that “virginity testing” – which includes the insertion of fingers into the vagina – of girls as young as 12, was widely practiced in the apostolic churches. “If found to be virgins they would get marks on their foreheads,” he said. “Older men in the church will then choose these ‘fresh girls’ to become their wives, often joining polygamous unions. If a man marries a woman who is not a virgin, she is required to find a virgin girl for her husband to marry as compensation.” The World Health Organization has determined that virginity testing is a discredited and abusive practice with no scientific basis.
Human Rights Watch also documented discriminatory social norms that link a girl’s perceived sexual “purity” to her family’s honor. If a girl becomes pregnant, spends the night outside the family home, is seen with a boyfriend, or returns home late after seeing a boyfriend, her family may force her to marry for the sake of honor. In some cases girls who become pregnant or are sexually active decide to enter a customary marriage because they fear being rejected, beaten, or abused by relatives.
In most cases of child marriage Human Rights Watch documented, girls had no sex education before they became pregnant or married. The Health and Child Welfare Ministry found in a 2010 survey that young people, especially those ages 10 to 14, lacked basic knowledge of reproductive health. The government’s national school curriculum does not include a comprehensive sex education program. Many Zimbabweans fear that providing young people with contraception contributes to promiscuity. Many indigenous apostolic churches actively discourage use of contraception.
The negative health consequences of adolescents’ limited access to reproductive health information and services can be life-threatening. Early childbearing contributes to maternal mortality, and is a leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 globally. Although the overall HIV infection rate has dropped in Zimbabwe, it remains high, at 15 percent, and Zimbabwe has the sixth-highest number of annual adolescent AIDS-related deaths in the world. According to UNAIDS, HIV prevalence is almost twice as high among women and girls ages 15 to 24 as among men and boys of the same age.
“Zimbabwe’s government and religious leaders should recognize that comprehensive sex education and access to contraception are essential to preventing child marriage and protecting girls from HIV transmission and early childbearing,” Mavhinga said. “Early childbearing can lead to death or serious injury, including obstetric fistula.”
Some child brides Human Rights Watch interviewed had experienced violence such as beatings or verbal abuse from their in-laws or other relatives. Nearly all the child brides said their husbands had abandoned them, leaving them to care for children without financial support. Many described mental distress and suicidal feelings as a result of their situation.
Education can help protect against child marriage, but many girls said they dropped out of school because their families could not afford school costs. Nearly all the child brides Human Rights Watch interviewed were not able to continue their education after marriage, either because of their financial situation, their husband would not permit it, or they had to care for a baby. Many indigenous apostolic churches forbid girls to continue education after marriage. One church elder in the Johwane Marange apostolic church in Masvingo 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.”
In October 2014, two former child brides asked the Constitutional Court to have child marriage be made a criminal offense and declared unconstitutional. They asked the court to declare 18 the minimum age for marriage and to have all marriage laws amended. The government opposed the claim on the grounds that the applicants had not been forced into child marriage, but had “simply opted to live in unregistered unions when they were minors”; and since the Marriages Act permits girls to marry at 16 and boys at 18, “the differentiation arises from biological and psychological maturity levels for boys and girls.”
In July, Zimbabwe became the eighth country to join the African Union campaign to end child marriage in Africa. In her keynote address, Zimbabwe’s first lady, Grace Mugabe, called on the Justice Ministry to revise Zimbabwe’s laws to set the minimum marriage age at 18, but her recommendation has not been carried out.
The government has yet to finalize and implement a national action plan on ending child marriage, as the African Union has requested. The action plan should set out the government’s strategies, in partnership with key stakeholders – donors, community leaders, adolescents, and nongovernmental groups – to address child marriage in Zimbabwe.
“President Mugabe and his government should not ignore the suffering of hundreds of thousands of girls in Zimbabwe who are robbed of their futures through early marriage,” Mavhinga said. “The government should drop its objection to the constitutional challenge, reform its laws, and ensure that the minimum age of 18 for marriage is applied across the country, including by religious denominations.”
Human Rights Watch (HRW)