We Have the Power to End Child Marriage

These seed grants were funded by Johnson & Johnson and WomanCare Global via the Women Deliver C Exchange Youth Initiative.

By; Yemurai Nyoni, Bulawayo Youth Development Organization (Zimbabwe)

When Tecla woke up, she carried out her chores with a little more urgency than usual. She was starting a new job to raise money for her school fees, so she couldn’t afford to be late. When she had finished collecting water, cleaning the house and preparing breakfast, she left with her mother to meet her employers.

As they walked together, she felt happy. The money she would earn as a maid would help her parents send her to school. She would be like the other children in Epworth. She could play games, listen to exciting stories and achieve her dream of being a teacher. As her thoughts turned into a pleasant day-dream, she was brought back to reality by her mother’s voice as she said nervously, “tasvika” (we’ve arrived).

Now her joy turned to fear, because of the tone of her mother’s voice, but also as she thought of the enormity of the task ahead. She was going to be a maid for a family she had never met, and at 12 years old, she felt she wasn’t ready. Nonetheless, she followed obediently behind her mother, the woman who had sacrificed so much for her.

A few hours later, Tecla’s dreams were shattered when was raped by her employer’s son. When the young man was apprehended by the police, he admitted his guilt and explained that Tecla was his wife. Tecla’s father had sold her for a few cows to help alleviate her family’s poverty. Tecla and her mother had not known of this decision. At 12 years old, Tecla became pregnant and contracted HIV from that forced sexual encounter. Her baby died soon after birth.

Stories like Tecla’s are the lived reality of thousands of girls in Zimbabwe who have been forced to  forego their childhoods, abandon school and sacrifice their dreams to become child brides and teenage mothers. Seven years ago, Zimbabwe passed the Domestic Violence Act that outlawed child marriage; however, despite this, 31% of Zimbabwean girls under 18 are still married illegally.

Child marriage remains a life-threatening practice for girls. In the developing world, 90% of pregnant adolescents are already married and face a high risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth. Furthermore, girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and drop out of school.

As young people in Zimbabwe, we are leading the charge to end child marriage through the Rising Birds Project. Our goal is to change and enforce laws that protect children from marriage. To achieve this, we have focused on three major change agents that have the power to make child marriage history.

1. The Power of Laws:
Zimbabwe’s new constitution clearly defines a child as anyone under the age of 18 and establishes 18 as the minimum age to marry. The Domestic Violence Act describes child marriage as a form of domestic violence. However, Zimbabwe’s current Marriage Act, Customary Marriages Act and Children’s Act contradict these principles. We must work with members of Parliament to align our laws with our Constitution and outlaw child marriage. Political leaders must be bold enough to stand up for all children, especially the girls who face health complications, economic challenges and domestic violence.

2. The Power of Community Support:
All members of communities – parents, teachers, and religious and traditional leaders – have a role to play in preventing child marriage. When communities are provided with information about the consequences of child marriage and empowered to help end the practice, they can influence change where it really matters – within families.

We are encouraging parents to appreciate the value of education and realize alternatives to marrying off their daughters. We are engaging religious and traditional leaders, who often serve as moral compasses and have the power to positively redefine community views on child marriage. And we are educating civil society organizations, teachers, law enforcers and other stakeholders, who can help ensure that laws are upheld to protect children from this harmful practice.

3. The Power of Youth Leadership:
The victims of child marriage are young people, which means they have the greatest justification to take action to end the practice. Young people, particularly young women, can help intervening organizations understand what it means for a child to enter into marriage, either voluntarily or by force. Youth all over the world have declared war against child marriage, citing it as a threat to our future that must be eliminated if we are to create the world that we want. We have started a movement to end child marriage in our generation, and with your partnership, this can soon become a reality for adolescent girls in Zimbabwe.

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