Roselyne Sachiti Features, Health and Society Editor
At the age of 18, Barbra Mapani of Chadereka area in Muzarabani, Mashonaland Central Province, is a mother of two, having had the first when she was only 15.
Kaseke, who is a school dropout, is unemployed and also pregnant with her third child.
Last week, she told The Herald that she earns a living from helping the wealthier members of the community till land when piece jobs are available.
Sometimes she sells a wild fruit masau (Ziziphus mauritiana) when in season, but does not make enough to feed her two children.
Her 42-year-old husband cannot keep up with the family’s demands as he has three other wives, one of them Kaseke’s elder sister Martha, and several other children.
“My husband is older and decides when I should fall pregnant, I don’t have a say when it comes to that. I also do not have a say on the method of contraception to use. He says I should take the pill which I do not like as I sometimes forget to take it. I prefer the implant,” she says.
Their polygamous intergenerational relationship is socially acceptable as in this part of Zimbabwe, 10,1 percent of women first married or entered into a marital union before their 15th birthday.
In the same area, 14 percent of women were in a polygamous union, according to the country’s Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) 2014.
Yesterday was the Day of the African Child (DAC) and on Saturday, Zimbabwe joined the continent to commemorate DAC at the opening of the 27th Session of Junior Parliament, which was opened by President Mnangagwa in Harare.
DAC was initiated in 1991 by the Organisation of African Unity Assembly, which designated June 16 in honour of children who participated in South Africa’s Soweto Uprising in 1976.
This year’s commemoration was held under the theme “Humanitarian Action in Africa: Children’s rights first”.
In his speech, President Mnangagwa said his administration considers young people as “critical partners to achieving our national development agenda”.
He emphasised that Government would never neglect the rights of young people to access education, housing, health and employment opportunities, among other essential things.
His remarks are echoed in Zimbabwe’s Constitution, Article 81, Rights of Children, which among other issues, says: “Every child, that is to say every boy and girl under the age of eighteen years, has the right to education, health care services, nutrition and shelter.”
The country’s Constitution also adds that every child has a right to be protected from economic and sexual exploitation, from child labour, and from maltreatment, neglect or any form of abuse.
As the country commemorated DAC, many social ills like the ones denounced by the Constitution sadly have found their place in society.
One of the unfortunate issues are early and forced marriages, like in the case of Mapani mentioned above, which stalk children, especially girls. Other issues like economic challenges also face children, especially the orphaned and vulnerable.
The sad reality, too, is that while Government is working tirelessly on ensuring those who violate child rights face the wrath of the law, society turns a blind eye on girls like Mapani who marry and give birth before the age of 18.
Some cases are never reported to police and perpetrators walk freely.
In Zimbabwe, early child marriages are driven by social, economic, religious, traditional customs and family honour, among other issues.
According to Girls not Brides, a girl’s level of education also determines when she will marry as those from poor households marry before 18, while those living in the richest households marry later.
Gender inequality and the belief that girls are somehow inferior to boys also fuels child marriages.
In some households, girls are married off to reduce perceived economic burdens, with the bride price being used by the family as a means of survival.
Then, there are cases when if a girl engages in premarital sex, is seen with a boyfriend or returns home late, she is forced to marry to mitigate shame.
It is clear that the reasons why girls enter into early marriages are many and varied.
But Government has also made many commitments in an effort to end such practices.
As President Mnangagwa rightly put it in his speech on Saturday, Zimbabwe had a commendable record for advocating for children’s rights as shown by the ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
“Notable successes have been registered towards the realisation of children’s rights in the areas of health, education and social protection,” he said.
“Our young generation continues to be at the heart of Government’s policies. My Government has adopted policies and measures to reflect the spirit and letter of Section 81 and Section 20 of the Constitution.
“We are determined to ensure that matters relating to our children are effectively dealt with.”
The official opening of the Junior Parliament was attended by thousands of children from various parts of the world.
In 1990, the country ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18.
Then in 1991, the country also acceded to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). CEDAW obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.
With CRC also celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef ) Country Representative Laylee Moshiri said four areas that needed special attention in Zimbabwe to reinforce children’s rights in line with the UN CRC included “gender equality, inclusion of children with disabilities especially in emergencies, free basic education and birth registration for every child”.
To further show Government commitments to ending child marriage, the year 1995 saw Zimbabwe ratifying the African Charter on Rights and Welfare of the Child, including Article 21 regarding prohibition of child marriage.
Then in 2008, Zimbabwe also ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the rights of women in Africa, including Article 6 which sets the age of marriage at 18.
In September 2014, Zimbabwe signed a joint statement on child early and forced marriages (HRC 27 agenda item 3). The joint statement addresses the root causes of child marriages and also recognises the role of traditional leaders and men.
The year 2015 saw Zimbabwe launching the African Union’s campaign to end Child Marriage in Africa.
Another victory was in 2016, when Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court outlawed child marriage so no one may enter into any marriage before 18.
The country also co-sponsored the 2017 Human Rights Council resolution recognising the need to address child, early and forced marriage in humanitarian contexts.
Eighty-five countries co-sponsored the resolution including countries with high rates of child marriage.
Most importantly, the country’s National Gender Policy was revised in 2017 and now includes components on addressing child marriages.
Zimbabwe also committed to eliminating child and early child marriage by 2030 in line with Sustainable Development Goal 5.3, eliminate all harmful practices such as child and early child marriages and female genital mutilation.
Globally, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) which was convened in Cairo, Egypt, from September 5-13, 1994 adopted the Programme of Action, which emphasised the fundamental role of women’s interests in population matters and introduced the concepts of sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.
But the Cairo agenda has yet to be realised for all people in all places.
The AU Roadmap on harnessing the Demographic Dividend Through Investments in Youth points out that the high maternal and child mortality, prevalence of sexually transmitted infections, socio-cultural practices that inhibit access to health and well-being particularly harmful practices such as child marriage and FGM, and the unacceptable school dropout rates due to unintended pregnancies pose a serious threat to Africa’s efforts to harness the demographic dividend.
This year’s DAC also comes at a time a new study, conducted by the Population Council and Women Deliver confirms the link between early child marriages and economic challenges.
The study titled, “Having a child before becoming an adult: Exploring the economic impact in a multi-country analysis”, has revealed a strong and consistent lifelong negative association between giving birth before age 18 and a woman’s economic empowerment.
The research, previewed last week, points to the critical need to strengthen sexual and reproductive health and rights and expand economic opportunities for girls and women throughout their lives.
“The ability to earn and control cash represents more than just earnings — it influences a woman’s ability to make strategic life choices,” said deputy director of the Population Council’s Girl Centre, Stephanie Psaki.
“This is one of the first studies to show consistently across so many countries and settings that having a child early can impact future earning potential.”
Drawing from nationally representative Demographic and Health Survey (DHS) data in 43 low- and middle-income countries, representing more than 600 million women, the analysis found that childbearing before age 18 is widespread.
Despite global declines in the rates of adolescent childbearing in the last 25 years, the study also found that it remains common in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa where in nearly a dozen countries at least 30 percent of women have a child before age 18.
According to the study results, women who have a child before age 18 are less likely to earn cash for their work throughout their lives.
More specifically, women (ages 20-24) who have a child before age 18 are more likely to be employed in the short term; however, they are less likely to earn cash in the short term and throughout their reproductive lives.
In the majority of countries studied, most women work; however, whether they are paid for their work or not varies widely, as does their ability to control their earnings.
In Togo, for example, among married and cohabiting women, most work (86 percent), earn cash (62 percent) and retain control of their earnings (57 percent).
In contrast, the vast majority of married and cohabitating women in Burundi work (94 percent), but just 16 percent earn cash and 4 percent retain sole control over their earnings.
“The study examines complex issues, but the implications are simple — in order to move the needle on gender equality, women need to be able to control their own fertility and their own earnings,” said president/CEO of Women Deliver, Katja Iversen.
“We need societal investment in access to modern contraception, safe abortion, and comprehensive sexuality education, as well as in expanding economic opportunities for all girls and women.”
The analysis used the newest available DHS data (2012-2018) from 43 countries and included all women ages 20-49, allowing for nationally representative findings that are comparable across countries and over time. Few studies have considered the short- and long-term effects that a birth before age 18 have on women’s earning potential.
“The study confirms that early life events can shape the trajectory of a young woman’s life,” said the president of Population Council Julia Bunting OBE.
“Policymakers need to invest in better understanding the trade-offs girls and women face and prioritise actions that will ensure girls and women have a full range of life options.”
With such clear government and development partners’ commitment towards ending child marriages, it is now up to society to deal with societal ills that push young children into such circumstances. Placing child rights above everything can make a huge difference in the lives of girls forced onto the marital bed too young.