Zimbabwean authorities must take decisive action to prohibit and end child marriage

Zimbabwe authorities must immediately take decisive action to protect girls from the harmful practice of early and forced child marriage, Amnesty International said today.  The authorities must end impunity for sexual abuse and child marriages, especially within the Apostolic Church sects.

On 15 July a 14-year-old child bride, Memory Machaya died during childbirth at a Johanne Marange Apostolic Church shrine. She did not have access to health care professionals. The lack of urgency on the part of the adults involved during childbirth for young girls not physically developed and the prevalence of home deliveries in mostly poor rural communities involving children without decision -making powers contributed to Memory’s death. Memory’s parents had taken her out from her first year of high school at a school in the Mhondoro district of Mashonaland West aged 13 and betrothed her to an adult man Evans Momberume, a member of the Apostolic Church. At the tender age of 14, her potential, her future, her dreams and her career died with her at the church shrine. Memory’s tragic case has become emblematic of the prevalent cases of child marriages in Zimbabwe.

 Zimbabwe is one of four SADC states with high levels of child marriages. According to UN Women, one in three children in Zimbabwe are married before they reach 18 years and UNICEF in 2015 stated that 31% of the girls in Zimbabwe are married before their 18th birthday. Child marriage is both an outcome and driver of gender inequality and discrimination.  

Child marriage creates a cycle of poverty, unintended pregnancies, barriers to education and lost opportunities for the girl child. In 2016, the Supreme Court of Zimbabwe struck down section 22(1) of the Marriage Act, which for years had allowed children under 18 to get married, with parental consent. In practice child marriages have not stopped in line with the Supreme Court judgment. This is even though Zimbabwe is a signatory to the Maputo Protocol which prohibits marriage of children under 18 and prohibits all forms of harmful cultural practices including child marriages.

The failure by the state to effectively combat child marriage and tackle some of the root causes including poverty, gender discrimination, harmful practices, and barriers to education and sexual and reproductive health services and information have worsened its occurrence.  Research from Amnesty International has documented how child marriages have led to human rights violations, including sexual abuse, disruption with their education, impeded access to healthcare, the potential risk of developing a fistula during childbirth, the tragic occurrence of maternal mortality and morbidity during home deliveries and lack of family protection of the girl child.

Amnesty International found that in early child marriages, the girls face challenges in making decisions about their health and continuing with their education.

We call on Zimbabwe authorities to immediately pass into law legislation that prohibits child marriages. Although the 2019 Marriages Bill, prohibits and condemns child marriages, it is yet to be passed into law by the Parliament of Zimbabwe. The Marriages Bill is currently at its second reading stage before Senate. According to the Marriage Bill, parents who betroth their children in marriage could be prosecuted and the man who marries a child below the age of 18 faces a similar fate. The obligation of authorities in Zimbabwe goes beyond prosecuting child marriage offenders, as the state should further pass laws and policies that prohibit the marriage of children under 18, reduce the discrimination and marginalisation of the girl child, and ensure that all marriages are registered in terms of the law.

We call on authorities to conduct a prompt, effective, impartial and independent investigation into the circumstances of the death of Memory Machaya and ensure those responsible are held accountable in accordance with their right to fair trial. The state must also investigate the practice of child marriages in the Apostolic Church and mostly rural communities in Zimbabwe. Amnesty International welcomes and acknowledges the public outcry and the commitments made by the police to investigate her death, concerns by the Gender Commission, and calls by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises to end child marriages and urges the authorities to translate their public commitments into swift action.

 The Zimbabwe Gender Commission in 2019 reported that “Twenty-two women are raped daily in Zimbabwe, one woman is abused every 75 minutes and an average of 646 women are being sexually-abused monthly and one in three girls is raped or sexually assaulted before they reach the age of 18.” The Sexual Offences Act and the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act contain gaps of concern to Amnesty International. The Sexual Offences Act set the age of consent to sex as 16.  However, the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act creates an offence of extra-marital sexual intercourse with a minor and provides a defence to a charge of statutory rape of a child aged between 12 and 16 if there was “consent”.  The legislation has been criticised for creating confusion within Zimbabwe as to the age of consent for sex and limiting access to justice for child rape survivors.

 Perpetrators exploit the gaps by legitimising sexual abuse of minors through forced marriages and enjoy the entrenched impunity.  If there was enough political will the Domestic Violence Act could be used to prosecute child marriages. The Domestic Violence Act describes child marriage as a form of domestic violence or abuse derived from a cultural practice that discriminates against or degrades women. Section 4 then criminalises any act of domestic violence as defined in section 3 of the Domestic Violence Act.

At the regional and international levels Zimbabwe is a state party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children (ACRWC) which provide for the principle of the best interests of the child, rights of children to education, health, family protection, dignity and freedom from torture and sexual abuse. Section 21 of the ACRWC enjoins states to, “Take all appropriate measures to eliminate harmful social and cultural practices affecting the welfare, dignity, normal growth and development of the child” including practices that are prejudicial to the health and life of a child. Section 21 further provides that “Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory.” It is time for Zimbabwe to immediately live up to the international and regional norms they signed up to and ratified.

The authorities must ensure that adolescents have access to sexual and reproductive health services and information. Traditional and religious leaders in rural and peri-urban communities must take steps to stop these harmful practices amongst their church and community members. Civil society organisations must continue to advocate behaviour change in communities and push policymakers to make legislative reforms and hold perpetrators accountable using available alternative laws. We believe with sufficient political will, the state could hold accountable perpetrators of gender-based violence.