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Girl child pledging drawback to women’s emancipation

BY BLESSING MANDABVA

People’s attitudes and behaviours are influenced by tradition, religion, culture and modernity. African spirituality, sometimes referred to as African Traditional Religion, used to infuse all aspects of life and has received a fair share of criticism from human rights bodies, women’s rights organisations and gender activists.

On March 8, Zimbabwe joined other nations in commemorating International Women’s Day.

Human rights organisations, gender activists and churches celebrated the strides made towards the eradication of harmful cultural practices affecting the girl-child and women at large.

International Women’s Day offers an opportunity to reflect on progress made, to call for change and to celebrate acts of courage and determination by ordinary women who have played an extraordinary role in the history of their countries and communities. Change comes from challenge – and that is the message organisers of International Women’s Day 2021 hope to trumpet as we wrap up the women’s month of March.

“A challenged world is an alert world,” read a message on the United Nations Women’s website on International Women’s Day. “We can all choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality.”

Gender parity in government, workplaces, health care, sports and media is achievable through individual change, women’s rights activists say.

While much noise is being made and recognition and attention is being directed to women who have played extraordinary roles in their nations, nothing much is being talked about on the women who have been on the receiving end due to savage archaic and barbaric customs. A case in point is the practice of kuripangozi (the customary practice of compensatory payment using a girl child in inter-family disputes to appease avenging deceased spirits).

One of the major blind spots on kuripangozi using the girl child or any other means is that it presumes vengeance as a cultural right among the Shona people. Another monstrous practice is that it rendered girls and women a socially deprived group through the practice of forced marriages to appease the wronged spirit. Although giving of a virgin girl for purposes of kuripangozi is a criminal offence in Zimbabwe, it appears some girls and women continue to suffer in silence because the practice is administered at the family level.

Through gender awareness campaigns, traditional leaders have been roped in to partner with authorities and gender activists in mainstream activities, but it is not enough.

The Domestic Violence Act is a preventive legal instrument whose effect is still under scrutiny as to whether it addresses all domestic violence fundamentals.

While the law criminalises various forms of violence that takes place in the home such as physical, psychological, economic and sexual assault, Section 3 (1) of the same law further states that, within the domain of domestic violence, “cultural or customary rites or practices that discriminate against or degrade women” are also acts of domestic violence.With such an instrument, there is need to encompass communities at grassroots level and marginalised communities.

There is also need to intensify such operations in the rural areas as well as other communities which are not yet developed. The stages of inequality and abuse of women differ on setting whether it’s an urban setting or a rural setting. Whilst urban women will be fighting for equality, rural and marginalised would be fighting against harmful customs and traditions and culture.

Ekenia Chifamba, the director of Shamwari Yemwanasikana – a girl child rights organisation – said they are conducting awareness campaigns to sensitise communities about the need to do away with harmful practices that violate women’s fundamental liberties.

“We have, therefore, gone to rural communities such as Murehwa, Seke, Chiredzi, Nyanga and Rusape to promote inclusivity of both men and women for constructive engagement in resolving inter-family murder-related conflict and shun cultural practices like girl-child pledging,” said Chifamba.

“As an organisation, we have also set up structures such as men’s and boy’s forums to engage them to be champions of girl child empowerment, thus in the process doing away with such practices as men also occupy key religious, cultural and community leadership positions.”

In efforts to mitigate such harmful practices, Shamwari Yemwanasikana has set up community development committees which are watchdogs of such cases among other child rights violations and women’s rights violations.

“The current trends show that girl-child pledging and abuse of widows from the point of death of the husband is still prevalent although to a lesser extent mostly in areas such as Manicaland, Mashonaland East and Mashonaland West provinces. However, from the work that we have done, it still appears that numerous girls and women still suffering silently due to the fact that the practice is directed at family level,” said Chifamba.

She said her organisation stands firm on its stance that there is no excuse that should fuel such a practice as it is a direct violation of girl’s fundamental rights.

Zimbabwe National Traditional Healers Association president George Kandiero described girl-child pledging as a primitive and outdated custom.

“Today we now have people paying compensation using cows and money. The pledging of the girl-child is no longer practiced as much as it used to be. The people have evolved, these girls have rights too,” Kandiero said.

“The main reason for ngozi is revenge and the avenging spirits appear to attack the killer and his bloodline regardless of the fact that the killer may have been sent by someone to kill, for example, as is the case with soldiers. The avenging spirits does not consider that. It appears to the killer regardless of the reasons for killing.”

He said the avenging spirit could be negotiated with if the amounts demanded are too harsh. However, Kandiero said efforts should be made to curb dubious compensation purported to be coming from the avenging spirits while they are coming from selfish desires of the family members.

A United Methodist Church [UMC] pastor, Reverend John Makaniko, said: “While ngozi or the avenging spirit is a reality among many African tribes and societies, it also has a biblical perspective. In Genesis 4:10, whether God uses figurative or poetic language, He talks about Abel’s blood crying out after being killed by his brother Cain. In Matthew 27:25, ‘the whole people say ‘may his blood be on us and on our children’.”

“These two texts are sure statements that killing a human being has serious repercussions of the avenging spirit that will haunt through the bloodline. This means ngozi will have effects on the killer, children and close relatives.”

Rev Makaniko is the UMC pastor in charge of social justice at grassroots level under the general board on church and society in Zimbabwe.

In old times, ngozi, especially among the Shona people, was settled by giving out girls as payment. However, with the advent of Christianity and change of cultural practices, people no longer use human beings, but cattle or money to appease the avenging spirit, added Rev Makaniko.  In one such scenario in Honde Valley, Manicaland, in 1995, five girls from some families were forced out of school and married off as appeasement to the spirit of one Gibson Kupemba who had been murdered. Kupemba’s grandson Gibson (junior) said his father had appeared to him in his sleep, demanding virgin girls as compensation from each of the families that were involved in his murder. He insists the girls were not forced to offer themselves, but it was their personal choice to rescue their families from the avenging spirit.

In another story which generated public interest, former Midlands governor and jailed Zanu PF politician Jason Machaya, whose son was one of the killers of Moses Chokuda, did not hesitate to part with 35 head of cattle and US$15 000 to compensate Cthe victim’s family. Chokuda died in March 2009 at the hands of Farai Machaya, brothers Edmore and Bothwell Gana as well as Abel Maphosa. He became known as the man who refused to be buried following reports that he returned as an avenging spirit. In this case there is no record on whether the girl-child pledging in the Chokuda saga came into effect.

Denying the existence of ngozi would be comparable to burying one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality. Resorting to migration and spirit exorcism through churches and traditional healers as a way of escaping ngozi is a futile exercise. The only solution is negotiated recompense to the victims and their families and ensuring restorative justice takes place without human beings being pledged.

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