The Southern African nation of Zimbabwe has long been known as a “hot spot” for child marriages. The United Nations says that as many as 31 percent of Zimbabwean girls are married before the age of 18. But two such girls say enough is enough, and are challenging the government at the highest levels to lift the age of consent for girls to 18.
Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi were just girls when they were married and gave birth for the first time.
Now the pair is challenging what they say was a violation of their rights in Zimbabwe’s highest court. They are seeking to raise the legal marriage age for girls from 16 years to 18 - the same as it is for boys. They are also seeking the annulment of existing child marriages - a change that could affect countless girls and their families.
Their lawyer, former finance minister Tendai Biti, argued before the Constitutional Court this week that 18 years is the threshold to ensure that potential brides are making their own decision.
He spoke to reporters after the court session in Harare. “There is a problem of early marriages in Zimbabwe. One in three women are marrying before the age of 18. Twenty percent (of the one in three) are being married or impregnated before the age of 15. So these are young children," he noted. "Most of these girls come from poor background. You have a situation of a child carrying a child. Educational attainments are curtailed. Empowerment opportunities are curtailed. So it becomes a continuous cycle of poverty.”
Biti argued in court that the new constitution specifies 18 is the legal age to decide to have a family. He also says condoning marriage at a younger age violates Article 56 of the constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law.
Emmily Naphambo of the development organization Plan International says child marriage fails to protect the rights of children, and needs to end. “We have very high prevalence of child marriages - second from [after] South Asia. As a region we are at 37 percent, but within that region we have hot spots with countries with much higher high prevalence rates which are much higher than 37 percent. For example in Malawi, in Mozambique, in Zimbabwe, in Zambia, in all these countries the prevalence rates are pretty close to 50 percent; which is high. We are talking of; for every 100 girls, 50 of them are already married by the time they are 18 years old,” she said.
Those who oppose child marriage say it is often provoked by poverty, lack of knowledge and longstanding cultural beliefs.
Human rights violations
But, they note these marriages kick off a string of human rights violations by preventing girls from getting further education, which in turn can diminish their chances of getting good work and good health care. And Zimbabwean authorities say the consequences can be deadly: the incidence of too-young mothers, they say, contributes to the nation’s high rates of child and maternal mortality.
Beatrice Savadye heads Real Opportunities for Transformation Support's, a group that lobbies for gender rights, and is helping the two plaintiffs in the case.
“So it is the young people who have gone through young marriages and have felt the consequences of marrying early who are standing up early to say it does not have to happen to any other child. So it is part of our campaign to end early child marriages in Zimbabwe. We have seen a lot of cases in different provinces where we are going to conduct dialogues with chiefs. The communities and even the chiefs are really rallying behind the campaign. So that local effort has to be complemented by efforts at a national level to ensure that there is that harmony between law and what is happening on the ground,” Savadye stated.
It is not clear when the the Constitutional Court will issue a ruling in this case.