HARARE - In Zimbabwe, as in other countries, Friday marks the start of an official 16-day campaign against gender violence, which mainly targets women and girls. Activists in Zimbabwe are concentrating on early marriage, a practice that remains very common despite the Constitutional Court declaring it illegal this year.
Official statistics released this week say about 5,000 Zimbabwean children have left school this year alone because of early marriages, something that worries officials, U.N. agencies and activists who want children to complete their education.
On Friday, Zivai Makanda, from the local NGO Zimbabwe Girls Legacy, said the figures have made her organization change focus.
"We specializing on the topic 'What stressed the girls out?' So that we manage and see what is the root of early marriages ," said Makanda. " So the girls raise issues, like poverty, culture and some of the issues like fights and abuse within their families and issues of having a stepfather or a stepmother. So those are some of the issues the girls will be running away from."
Zimbabwe Girls’ Legacy is one of the groups that met Friday with government officials and international organizations to discuss ways of ending child marriage, which continues despite a ruling from Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court that it is illegal to marry anyone under the age of 18.
Kumbirai Kahiya, the founder and director of the Girls and Women Empowerment Network of Zimbabwe, says that laws alone mean nothing.
"Because in our culture if a girl gets pregnant we expect her to get married," she said. "We are happy that the Constitutional Court has already set 18 years as the minimum age of marriage. So we want to ensure that the laws are [not] just mentioned, but are implemented. So the government needs to continue engaging civic organizations as well as other people in the community not to force 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.
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 United Nations Population Fund calls child marriage a violation of human rights. By all indications, however, few Zimbabweans share that view.