By Roselyne Sachiti
AT the tender age of 14, Nyarai has been betrothed to a senior member of the apostolic sect as the eighth wife.
The marriage was arranged outside her knowledge and she found herself dropping out of school to take up her new role as a wife.
Nyarai (not real name) of Matara Village in Murehwa, Mashonaland East Province, is polygamist Jacob Garwe’s latest “trophy” and has been yoked with seven other women, senior to her in both age and experience in the matrix of polygamous matrimonial issues.
The most unfortunate thing is that according to church doctrine, she could not override her father’s decision to marry her off, let alone report to police.
The youthful member of the Johane Marange apostolic sect could easily pass for a high school pupil and her pint-sized body says a lot about the ups and downs in her life.
But she is one of the eight wives in a polygamous union after she was married off in a shady transaction between her father and Garwe (51).
The nature of the deal is a closely guarded family secret and anyone who pries into circumstances of Nyarai’s forced marriage invites the wrath of her family.
Owner of a ramshackle yellow car he uses to shuttle commuters between Murehwa Centre and Ndandara Growth Point, Garwe is counted among the rich in his neighbourhood.
Nyarai, a late starter at school, should be in Grade Seven.
But the young victim of circumstantial abuse has resigned to the forced marriage.
She has resisted her uncle, Reverend Augustine Gwashavanhu’s attempts to take her back home and put her back in school.
Rev Gwashavanhu — who was responsible for paying Nyarai’s school fees — bemoaned his niece’s forced marriage but said his hands were tied as the girl’s parents were accomplices in her abuse.
“Nyarai was devastated when she first discovered that she was given off to Jacob as a wife,” Rev Gwashavanhu said.
“She desperately tried to find someone who could help her, but found none on the day she was to be taken and raped. She spoke to her cousin who is her age.”
“Nyarai also begged her grandmother to intervene, but it was of no help. Her father ordered her to go with Garwe. Her mother also pressured her into going as she had been threatened with expulsion from their matrimonial home.
“She had no option but concede to Garwe’s sexual demands, even though they were against her will.”
Nyarai’s 12-year-old half sister was also married off to a 57-year-old man who had six other wives, but she escaped and is now back at school.
She hopes to write Grade Seven examinations this year.
Nyarai’s stepmother, who only identified herself as Mai Knowledge, confirmed Nyarai was married off to Garwe but she would not reveal where she was staying.
“Nyarai is with her husband and she is happy,” Mai Knowledge said.
“What is the fuss about her being married? She looks happy every time she visits and I have never heard her complain.
“What is your concern in how my husband runs our family? Leave us alone.”
Mai Knowledge said she also married Nyarai’s father when she was 13. She now has two children aged six and the younger one two weeks old.
She adds: “What is better to be a prostitute or married to a husband who loves you? It does not matter how many wives he has but what is important is the security Nyarai gets in terms of food, health and happiness.”
To many villagers in the area and members of the Johane Marange sect around the country, there is nothing peculiar about Nyarai’s case.
If anything, they say there is nothing sinister about marrying at a tender age — it is normal for old men to marry girls young enough to be their great-grandchildren.
Cases of child abuse go unreported and offenders seldom prosecuted.
While non-members of the sects are concerned about the anomaly of early marriage, they often lack the power to act and prevent the practice.
The term “early marriage” refers to both formal marriages and informal unions in which a girl lives with a partner as if married before age of 18 (Unicef, 2005; Forum on Marriage and the Rights of Women and Dirls 2001).
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the most comprehensive international Bill of Rights for women, states that any betrothal or marriage of a child should not have any legal status.
The committee that monitors this Convention states further in General Recommendation 21 (Article 16(2)) that the minimum age for marriage for both male and female should be 18 years, the age when “they have attained full maturity and capacity to act”.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) (2006) defines early marriage, also known as child marriage, as “any marriage carried out below the age of 18 years, before the girl is physically, physiologically, and psychologically ready to shoulder the responsibilities of marriage and childbearing”.
The right to free and full consent to a marriage is recognised in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and in many subsequent human rights instruments — consent that cannot be free and full when at least one partner is very immature.
Child marriage is a violation of human rights and is prohibited by a number of international conventions and other instruments (Unicef 2001).
But Madzibaba Desmond of the Johane Marange sect has his own views about wrong and right and defends his sect’s policies saying marrying young girls has been their tradition for years and there is nothing wrong with the practice.
In fact, he said, the marriages are blessed by the church and they are done with the consent of the girl’s parents.
“Some of the men do not immediately become intimate with the small girls,” he said.
“Once a man identifies the girl he likes and her parents agree, the man usually keeps the girl at his home so that she gets accustomed to what goes on there.
“It is not all about sexual abuse as people may think. But, there are others who get tempted and end up becoming intimate with the girl before her body is ready,” he revealed.
According to the Girl Child Network, an estimated 8 000 girls in Zimbabwe have been forced into early marriages or were held as sex slaves since 2008.
The GCN last year launched a massive though unsuccessful appeal on behalf of Nyarai after she married Garwe.
The then 13-year-old Nyarai was moved from Garwe’s home but she was forced to pack her bags after her father allegedly told her he had no room for her at their home.
“We need more safe houses where these vulnerable girls can stay in,” said a teacher at Nyarai’s former school.
“Nyarai was trapped in an awkward system and there was no social net to fall on. This is why she went back to the old husband. The law could have easily protected her,” the teacher added.
Early marriages remain a barrier to education as young girls drop out of school.
Child rights organisations say this practice stands in direct conflict with the objectives of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) that include MDG 1 (eradicate extreme poverty and hunger); MDG 2 (achieve universal primary education); MDG 3 (promote gender equality and empower women); MDG (4 reduce child mortality), MDG 5 (improve maternal health); and MDG 6 (combat HIV and Aids and other diseases).
Zimbabwe ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, which says all actions concerning a child should take full account of his or her best interests and that the State is to provide adequate care when parents or others responsible fail to do so.
According to the Convention, a child has the right to protection from sexual exploitation and abuse, including prostitution and involvement in pornography.
But for as long as the apostolic sects continue to oppress women and girls under the guise of religion it becomes difficult to achieve all the MDGs and the ink on all signed Conventions that protect children will just fade with the hopes of the many abused girls.