Monica Cheru-Mpambawashe Lifestyle Editor
The first day Shamiso (not her real name) did not attend school in the first term of the year, her teacher was upset that his star pupil was absent.
Three days later he wondered if she had succumbed to the wave of malaria sweeping across parts of Mutoko.
On the fourth day he learnt that the Grade Seven pupil, who had just turned 13, would not be returning to school ever again.
Shamiso had married and henceforth would be concerning herself with matters of being a wife and mother with all the physical, social and economic burdens that come with those interlinked roles.
Recently, Plan International Zimbabwe child rights advisor Tholakele Ndlovu told the parliamentary portfolio committee on Women Affairs, Gender and Community Development that Zimbabwe is ranked 39 out of 192 countries on child marriages.
The Demographic Health Survey of 2006 established that in Mashonaland East under which Mutoko falls 85 percent of the children attend primary school with the figure drastically falling to 45 percent in secondary school.
A visit to Mutoko revealed a sad picture. Most teen girls that one comes across are mothers or expecting.
The teacher, who cannot be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media, says the problem of early marriages is just getting out of hand.
“This is not the first time that the school has lost a brilliant girl before she has a chance to make something of herself.
One time a girl went away just before Grade Seven examinations and last year another one dropped out after writing just two papers,” he explained.
He says the school authorities and the community do what they can but the problem is growing bigger as young girls and boys get married.
“A good number of our pupils are from apostolic sects. The Johanne Marange people marry off young girls, sometimes to older men.
In the case where we suspect that some form of child abuse has occurred we directly alert the police and Childline if we think the parents or guardians are complicit in the crime.”
The teacher admitted that many cases do not get reported because the girl is willing, the family has been paid off or the father is underage himself.
This reporter was able to establish that Mutoko Police Station has a victim friendly unit manned by officers who are trained to deal with traumatised children thus showing the commitment of the force to dealing with the scourge.
However, national police spokesperson Chief Superintendent Paul Nyathi said that the police are not aware of any particular cause of concern in Mutoko as compared to other parts of the country when it comes to reported cases of child marriages.
“There are no alarming reports from that area. I want to make it clear that as the police we do not hesitate to arrest any person who is accused of such a crime.
Where we get reports the law takes its course”
He reiterated the fact that the law is above any cultural or religious principles and that it would be best for everyone to comply by putting the interests of children above all other considerations.
“I also want to encourage all people to respect the rights of children.
That includes the right to go to school so that they can develop into adults who are free to make their own decisions about their lives,” he said.
In one recent case a 14 year old girl eloped to the home of her 14 year old boyfriend because she was pregnant.
Mutoko South Ward 29 Councillor Trust Kachidza said that the Johanne Marange apostolic sect followers in the area were culprits in cases of child abuse.
“In my own ward I would say about 40 percent of the population are from that church and their children get married very young.
You will note that even the boys also drop out of school early,” he said.
Mr Kachidza pointed out that the problem is not limited to that sect only as all youths appear to be indulging in early sexual debuts leading to teen pregnancies and child marriages.
“There are several problems. One is poverty and all this happens as a form of escape. Girls get married while young men opt to farm tobacco and start their own families.
The second is that we have developed cultural acceptance of these early marriages as something normal.”
Mr Kachidza said the third problem has been created by the proliferation of mobile phones which have enhanced access to sexually explicit material.
“These children see a lot of pornography. If you just get hold of their phones you will be shocked at the stuff that is there.
They do not need smart phones as they can exchange the videos and pictures on memory cards. After they have seen such things, they want to experiment,” he explained.
Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe president Bishop Johannes Ndanga is on record stating that the council does not condone any illegal acts on the parts of the members.
A local leader in the Johanne Marange church in one area of Mutoko who refused to be identified said the problem did not lie with the leadership but with the people themselves.
“When we attend national gatherings or meet with the leaders we are told about conforming to the law, send children to school, get them immunized and not marry young girls. Everyone is aware of that.
“But when we come back home, very few of the leaders pass on the message to their followers and we continue to just do things as we have always done.
If the police were to raid all villages and look at the age of the children that people call their wives, a lot of men will be thrown in jail,” he said.
Head of Village 99 Mr Manase Tafirenyika said that traditional leaders at the grassroots have become ceremonial figureheads who are not equipped to deal with the social problems that are bedeviling the area.
“I am just a leader in name. There is no legal statute that compels people to answer to me.
Some of these cases go unremarked and I only learn of them much later when the girl is already pregnant and there is nothing left to do.
“Even in cases where a child is being forced and I get to hear of it, I can only go and report to the police who are a long way away and I have no resources to fund that travel.”
Mr Tafirenyika said that poverty has fuelled the practice of children having children because many of them drop out of school as the parents cannot afford to pay their fees.”
Fees at the primary schools are around US$65 per child per term which is equivalent or higher than those charged in Harare high density urban areas.
Comparatively, schools in Chivi, Nyazura and Hurungwe charge up to US$20 for the same period.
Calls are being made for Government and other concerned stakeholders in church and civil society to recognise that rural children in Mutoko and other areas of Zimbabwe need effective policy implementation to make sure that they benefit from the laws that protect their rights.