Child marriage illegal – but continues
Zimbabwe recently outlawed child marriage. But what happens when tradition and the law are in conflict? Kundai Marunya gives his views.
Last month many Zimbabweans were overjoyed by the Constitutional Court ruling outlawing child marriages. Social media was awash with praise and congratulatory messages, mostly directed to politician and lawyer Tendai Biti who led the court application.
While the excitement is still going around, I recently witnessed an appalling incident at our farm. A 14 year old was seen leaving her 15 year old boyfriend’s home. Word got to her father. Suspecting the teenagers were in a sexual relationship, he forced his daughter to elope. It took a lot of convincing from the girl’s uncles to see her back home after some hours as a wife.
I had a talk with the girl’s father who saw everything wrong with her daughter ‘sleeping around’ and nothing wrong with forcing her into marriage. He said, “Kana achida zvekuvata nevarume ngaaroorwe. Haaite izvozvo achigara mumba mangu (If she wants to sleep around let her then get married. I will not tolerate that behaviour under my roof)”.
Tradition and child marriage
His argument was well in line with tradition that forbids sex before marriage. A tradition that is also backed by religion, Christianity to be specific. I know of many girls who were forced to elope for coming home late, having been with their boyfriends. This is just suspicion that one was having sex. I shudder to imagine what would happen if the young lovers are caught in a sexual act, no matter how young.
Yes we have this court ruling that we are all happy about, but let’s take a moment to think. Though most young people are having premarital sex, is the older generation, our parents and guardians ready to accept it? Especially when it’s the 16 year old school children!
I remember a few years back when there was a huge debate on whether or not it was ideal to distribute condoms in schools. It is mostly the old guard that was against the idea.
Separating sex and marriage
The January court ruling separates sexual intercourse from marriage. The age of consent is 16 while marriage has been pegged at 18. But society still believes otherwise. My brief research showed me that many people, even the young, believe if a girl falls pregnant she has to get married. If she remains in the home of her parents, several unflattering labels fly around.
The same labels are tagged to a girl who is caught or suspected of having sex before marriages. Funny how a guy involved in the same situation is held a hero among his peers. And when a group of young boys are sitting around discussing girls, there is always that talk on how to avoid responsibility if your girl falls pregnant. Some even talk of running away.
When a boy refuses responsibility it’s usually the girl’s family that has to take care of their grandchild. In this tough economy I don’t think many parents are willing to do so. Most of them try by all means to make sure they force the boy or his family to take responsibility. If this fails they are left with no option, after all it’s their child carrying the baby.
Marriage is much more complex than sexual intercourse. It takes commitment, dedication and maturity you may not find in teenagers. You may marry them off, but soon enough they will divorce. No wonder there is such a high rate of divorce cases in our courts.
The same society that coerces you to marry your child away, come back with the same labels upon divorce. Now we have derisory labels such as ‘M one’ and ‘returned soldiers’ for divorced mothers.
Most 16 year olds who are caught engaging in premarital sex are weighed down by the guilt and shame, so much that they could never even think of reporting a forced marriage to the police. I don’t think anyone would be willing to have their relatives arrested.
To avoid facing the consequences of their actions altogether most teenagers would even prefer abortion, which is also illegal in Zimbabwe. Because there are no safe facilities around, they will end up risking their lives using muti from traditional healers or prescriptions from their peers.
All this could be avoided if parents are open enough to talk to their children about sex, contraception and protection. I know many may argue that this could be encouraging children but they are having sex anyways. It is better to help them be prepared so that we may avoid early marriages.
Yes the law has spoken in our favour but there is still a lot to be done to protect our children. I think it is time we accept the dynamism of culture. Premarital sex is real. Our only hope is to make sure it’s safe.