Child Brides in Zimbabwe

The scorch-cart moved with a screeching sound along a dusty track in the village of Kapatankombe in Muzarabani Zimbabwe. A 64-year old man led two donkeys pulling the scotch-cart.

Inside the cart was a young woman, 16 years old, looking frail, a thin worn out blanket covering her emaciated body stretched on the floor. She had just experienced another contraction. She stared blankly; nothing the middle-aged lady seated by her side could do to blunt the bright blades of pain that slashed into the young girl's terrified being.

Their destination was the Mahuhwe business centre where they hoped to catch a kombi or lift to Guruve District Hospital.

“We did make it to Mahuhwe. We waited another two hours for the Kombi (commuter bus) to be full. But the Kombi eventually had to leave with half the expected passengers due to the state of emergency we had. By the time we left the centre my daughter had had several contractions, and I could sense that the baby would be coming soon,” narrated Senia Boroma.

“Occupying the first seats in the Kombi, she sat right there on the edge of the seat, her legs wedged tight by the luggage on the floor. The driver could hear her groans and my sighs, and I could hear the kombi accelerating. The silence which gripped the vehicle was intense as the driver raced against time. Then it happened.”

The child was coming. The driver stopped the Kombi and two woman passengers who had been observing the ordeal, along with Senia, helped to carry the pregnant child off the bus. At this point in her narrative, Senia’s face dropped, a tear running down her left cheek. The words that came later were hard to decipher.  After a long-drawn-out breath, she spoke.

“They did not make it, both her and the baby. No amount of traditional midwifery knowledge could save her. I wish she had not married early, I wish we had not made that fateful decision to marry her away,” Senia said sorrowfully.

Senia’s daughter was given to a polygamous man at the age of 15. The man had been a successful cotton farmer, but two successive years of poor harvest and low cotton prices drove him off to Mozambique, leaving the pregnant child in the hands of her parents.

Many child marriages in Zimbabwe are ending in tragic circumstances and cause grave health risks from early childbearing.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), along with many other groups and UN agencies, child marriage typically ends a girl’s ability to continue her education, exposes her to domestic and sexual violence (including marital rape), and increases her risk of HIV infection.

Child marriage not only deprives girls of schooling but also endangers their health. Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth is the leading cause of death among adolescent females aged 15-17 in Zimbabwe.

According to the 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the Scourge of Child Marriage in Zimbabwe, girls aged 15-20 are twice as likely to die in childbirth as those in their 20s, and girls under the age of 15 are 5 times as likely to die.

Most of the complications are a result of their young bodies, not yet fully developed to bear children. Their underdeveloped pelvic areas and small birth canals contribute to increased health risks and to the health of newborn babies. And clinics and emergency obstetric services are scarce.

Child marriage is also dangerous for infants too. Babies born to girls under 18 have a 60 percent greater chance of dying before their first birthday than those born of women over 19 years of age according to Zimbabwean pediatrician Gregory Powell.

“The negative health consequences of adolescents’ limited access to reproductive health information and services can be life-threatening. Early childbearing contributes to maternal mortality and is a leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 globally,” Powell said. “Early childbearing can lead to death or serious injury, including obstetric fistula.”

The pediatrician says complications at birth can also cause disabilities in children with the most common being cerebral palsy, a disorder that impairs a person’s ability to move and maintain balance and posture. It may also cause intellectual impairment. Powell explains that the condition may occur to lack of oxygen during birth.

Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality rate stands 0.82 percent, according to the health ministry. The 2014 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey reported that maternal deaths accounted for 10.1 percent deaths among women aged 15-49. Between 2009 and 2014, the maternal mortality rate, which is the annual number of maternal deaths per 1000 women age 15-49, was 0.82 percent.

Child marriage is now widely recognised as a violation of children's rights. It is also a direct form of discrimination against young girls, who, as a result of the practice, are often deprived of their fundamental human rights to health, education, development, and equality.

Tradition, religion, and poverty continue to fuel the practice of child marriage, despite its strong association with adverse reproductive health outcomes and the lack of education for girls.

Approximately one in three girls in Zimbabwe is married before their 18th birthday, and 4 percent marry before they turn 15.  The Girl Child Network (GCN), a civic organisation whose mission is to shelter, educate, and empower female victims, estimate that 8 000 girls have been forced into early marriages or were held as sex slaves since 2008.

According to Evernice Munando, Executive Director of Female Student Network (FSN), child marriage is rooted in gender, cultural and traditional customs and in the low value accorded to girls, and is exacerbated by poverty, insecurity, and conflict. It not only denies girls their rights but exposes them to abuse.

FSN, whose role is empowering girls in tertiary education institutions to curb sexual harassment and abuse, says ending child marriage will require long-term, sustainable action across many different sectors.

A robust legal and policy framework for preventing child marriage and supporting married girls should be the cornerstone of government efforts to address the practice.

No girl should be robbed of her childhood, her education and health, and her aspirations.

The future of millions of girls is at stake.