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Zimbabwe's Constitutional Court Outlaws Child Marriages

Human rights lawyer, former Zimbabwe finance minister Tendai Biti, addressing journalists outside court. He says after he wants the death penalty completely outlawed in Zimbabwe, 20 Jan. 2016. (Sebastian Mhofu/VOA)

Zimbabwe's highest court has ruled that marriage before the age of 18 is illegal. The unprecedented ruling by the Constitutional Court followed an application by two women who sought to have the legal age of marriage moved to 18 for both men and women.

The case was brought to the court by Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, two young women who were just girls when they were married and gave birth for the first time. Lawyer and former finance minister Tendai Biti represented them and on Wednesday described the ruling as "historic and revolutionary."

'Bold decision'

"The court should be congratulated for making such a bold, bold decision. I feared that they would leave that to the legislature," said Biti. "I am very pleased to be part of this history. Parliament should have done this many years ago. They had over 36 years to do it; they did not do it. So it has taken a bold decision from a bold court to do this. So it is a great day for women."

Biti, who is now a member of the group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, said celebrations would not last long as the country has to come up with penalties for those who ignore the court's ruling.

High rate of child marriages

Zimbabwe is one of four southern African countries with the highest rates of girl child marriages, according to the United Nations Population Fund and the development group Plan International. The others are Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia.

The organizations say early marriages prevent children — especially girls — from developing careers, forcing them into a cycle of poverty.

Clemence Charwe, a marriage counselor, hailed Wednesday's ruling.

"It is a right decision that the constitutional court has made; especially in nowadays you really need to be sure of what you are doing because you find the issue of divorce on the high side, because of people who just jump in, not fully understanding what marriage is all about. And when you are in there now, you then find that this is not what I really wanted, or this is not the person I wanted. So if someone is over 18 and you are looking at someone around 21, it’s an age where you can really make decisions with your full senses, and say this is a real person I wanted. And this is the right time I want to get into a marriage," said Charwe.

Poverty, religion and tradition are main reason for child marriages in Zimbabwe, where more than one-third of girls are wed before they turn 18.

The U.N. Population Fund calls child marriage a violation of human rights.