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Until January 2016, the minimum age for Zimbabwean women to marry was 16. (REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko)


Zimbabwe court bans child marriage after challenge by young brides

By Ellie Kaufman on February 2, 2016

In a landmark ruling on January 20, Zimbabwe banned child marriage, raising the minimum age at which both men and women can marry to 18.

Loveness Mudzuru, 20, and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, 19, launched their challenge to the government’s Marriage Act last July, claiming that it discriminated against girls by setting the minimum age to marry at 16 for them but 18 for men. Both Mudzuru and Tsopodzi were married at age 16, and almost a third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before 18, according to Reuters.

More than 700 million women and girls were married before 18 around the world, and 125 million of them are in Africa, reports UNICEF. While child marriage on the continent has declined by 10 percent in the past 25 years, a UNICEF report released in November revealed that if population growth persists at its current rate, “half of the world’s child brides in 2050 will be African.” Making the practice illegal, like Zimbabwe, is critical in eliminating child marriage altogether. “When you are able to have these kinds of laws, that means that the social understanding, the big attitude around the issue is shifting,” UNICEF Chief of Child Protection Cornelius Williams said.

Zimbabwe is one of 33 African countries that have set the minimum age for marriage at 18, but making these marriages illegal is just one step towards ending the practice. Even when laws are put in place, many countries allow exceptions to the rule with parental consent. The country also needs to have an adequate legislative system in order to properly enforce the law. “We have to work with the government to make sure the system is fully functional,” Williams said. “We will be monitoring the countries as they put in place the legislative framework.”

Child marriage is a human rights violation. Girls who become child brides are less likely to receive an adequate education, more likely to become victims of domestic abuse and have complications in pregnancy and childbirth. Child marriage presents challenges to women and girls in all aspects of their young and adult lives. “It affects their rights to education. It affects their rights to health,” Williams said. “They lack the skills and knowledge to lift their families out of poverty.”

If girls don’t go to school, they aren’t trained properly for any occupation. While many families marry their children off early as a result of poverty — to have one less mouth to feed or to receive payment from a dowry — marrying girls at a young age only contributes to that cycle. “You are allowing the skilled workers to become child bearers at an early age so you are losing the skill of these workers,” Williams said. “You’re also increasing the burden of the economy.”

Loveness Mudzuru, who married at 16, challenged Zimbabwe's Marriage Act. (Facebook/Loveness Mudzuru)
Loveness Mudzuru, who married at 16, challenged Zimbabwe’s Marriage Act. (Facebook/Loveness Mudzuru)

Loveness was pleased by the verdict, but also expressed remorse at the opportunities she had missed as a result of her own marriage. “Yes, I am aware of the court ruling, and I am happy that our efforts have brought a positive change for Zimbabwean children,” she told All Africa. “But now that the court case is over what is there for me? I passed four ordinary level subjects, and I wish I could supplement and go as far as University.”

Confidence, a 22-year-old Zimbabwean woman, married a 42-year-old man when she was 14. The first years of her marriage were so traumatic that she tried to kill herself. She told Human Rights Watch researchers, reported in VOA News, “child marriage ruined my life. Now I do not work and cannot find a job because I stopped going to school.”

Education is critical to lifting girls out of poverty. Recent data analysis suggests the more you keep girls in school, the less likely they are to get married at a young age, Williams said. While previous generations saw marriage as a way out of poverty for their children, Williams believes that adults are starting to value education more. “No matter what cultural or traditional background [parents] come from, they want the best for their children,” Williams said. “Previously what was being invested in was to make sure the girl finds a good man to marry. The images are shifting to invest to make the girl part of the modern economy. The parents, their attitudes are being shifted. They are investing in education.”

The African Union launched a continent-wide campaign last May to end child marriage. The campaign is involved with a number of initiatives to end the practice, and making it illegal in every country is one part of that mission. Ending child marriage, or even just significantly reducing it, will only be feasible when these laws are implemented and upheld.

The landmark case, however, does suggest that Zimbabwe has an important ally in the fight to end child marriage: the people in charge. “All and all, this is one of the interventions that could contribute to the reduction in child marriage,” Williams said. “It signals the political elite have made a commitment to reducing child marriage.”


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