HARARE, ZIMBABWE - The United Nations has voiced concern about the issue of child marriages in Zimbabwe. The concerns were raised after the country’s chief prosecutor said girls as young as 12 can be allowed to marry since they have no economic prospects or anything else to occupy them. The country has one of the highest rates of child marriage in Africa – along with Ethiopia, Burundi and Niger.
The U.N. says President Robert Mugabe’s government must quickly deal with the issue of child marriage because not only is it an affront to the dignity and well-being of individual girls, but it deprives nations of the social and economic benefits that come from an educated and skilled female population.
Bishow Parajuli, the U.N. resident coordinator in Zimbabwe, said girls must be allowed to get to a tertiary education level and then choose their career paths.
"There should be absolutely no early or child marriages. I understand Zimbabwe has this practice of early marriages for girls and that must stop," said Parajuli. "It is harmful to the girl; at the same time it is harmful to the nation. This is extremely harmful."
"I understand Zimbabwe is trying to find ways of trying to change these practices through laws. I think that is very important," Parajuli continued. "And that must be done as soon as possible for the benefit of citizens of Zimbabwe."
Those calls might fall on deaf ears if what Zimbabwe chief prosecutor Johannes Tomana told the state-owned media recently is anything to go by. He said while 16 is the legal age of consent in Zimbabwe, the collapsing economy is making girls engage in sexual activities at much younger ages.
"We have 9-year-olds, 12-year-olds, 13-year-olds who’re actually not in school, who’re not doing anything for example. What are we saying to them? Then we say, 'you can’t even do this [sex]' - when the environment is not giving them alternative engagements? What are we talking about?" asked Tomana.
His statements have attracted condemnation from all walks of life, including from Zimbabwe First Lady Grace Mugabe. This past week, she told supporters anyone who says such a thing is not sane and is a rapist. She said the person must be fired, has a rotten mind and is called a pedophile in English. She said that person has no shame.
Tomana has since said he was quoted out of context as he does not promote early marriages.
According to child rights group Plan International and the United Nations Population Fund, Zimbabwe is one of the countries with the highest rates of child marriages in the world – along with Ethiopia, Burundi and Niger in Africa.
A recent official report shows that 24 percent of girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years old in Zimbabwe are married or in a union. In some areas the rate is as high as 35 percent.
The United Nations hopes the government’s commitment to aligning existing marriage laws with the constitution, which places the minimum age of founding a family at 18, will greatly reduce early marriages in Zimbabwe.