Now that the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of outlawing child marriages in a historic moment on January 20, I cannot get over the feeling of victory and revival to some of us activists. This is for all the sleepless nights that we go through, the noise we make in the media and sometimes the backlush that we receive from those against women empowerment and freedoms, including from some of our female counterparts.
So what does all this mean for the ordinary girl in Shurugwi, Chirumanzu, Lupane, Mutoko, Guruve or Nkayi? What does this mean for the father of the young girl who is running away, eloping with an older boyfriend? What does it also mean to the family committee that sits down to discuss the marriage of a minor girl?
As the lawyer who represented the child brides, Tendai Biti puts it; “The behaviour of communities, sects and groupings will have to change to comply with the judgement. It is gratifying to note that the leaders of the Apostolic Faith have embraced the judgement.”
There is no choice but for everyone to get themselves acquainted with the ruling and the new social order that refuses the marriage of children below the age of 18 to enter into marriage either with themselves or with older persons who are above the age of 18. Organisations, communities, churches and all leaders are faced with the task of educating themselves and people to make sure that everyone is aware of this development.
The young potential brides need to know what the constitutional ruling says to be able to protect themselves and others in their communities from child marriages. The mothers and fathers need to know that it is now illegal to marry off a child below the age of 18.
In the past few days, I have been part of a number of caucuses where the issue was being discussed in the civic society. One of the key issues that comes out is that of consensual sex. This is looking at sex between children themselves and also sex between a minor and an adult. The latter is where sex between a minor and an adult should be treated as rape, in my opinion. I am by no means downplaying the complexities of minors themselves engaging in sexual activities. If we are saying that someone is young at the age of 18, it surely should mean that in terms of consenting for sex, they should also be treated as a minor to make such a decision.
While it is now illegal to marry off a child below the age of 18 from January 20, police remain with a mammoth task to enforce this without a law that empowers them to do so. There is an urgent need to enact a marriage act that stipulates the issues of child marriages to make it possible for the police to do their job. This is also one of the issues that I have written about in the past. We cannot overemphasise the dilemma that they currently have in enforcing the issue of child marriages.
This is also a dilemma for many parents who I have worked with in the past and wanted to get accomplices to the marriage of their daughters arrested, but could not because there is no law that prevents the accomplices or forces them to divulge information about the perpetration of child marriages.
Most importantly, it is the responsibility of all of us to make sure that the issue of child marriages is known by everyone and that it is something that we talk about at our boreholes, in public transport, while we load our cars, at the church, at the sporting fields and even when we are heading cattle, to ensure that every Zimbabwean is in the picture of the constitutional ruling. As they say, once the law is promulgated, it becomes each citizen’s duty to know what the law says lest we get into trouble. As they say, ignorance is not an excuse!
We do know that this is not only a Zimbabwean development since a number of countries in the region have also enacted such a law. We can choose to learn from others and make it work for us.
Nyaradzo “Nyari” Mashayamombe is the founder and executive director of Tag a Life International Trust, a girl child rights organisation. She is a development consultant, entrepreneur, musician and loves life. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org