By Phyllis Mbanje
FOR three months she was kept in a dingy little room and denied access to the outside world.
She was beaten as a way to cow her into submission and was kept naked at all times to prevent her from escaping. Her crime was refusing to accept a marriage proposal from a much older man who already had three grown-up children.
Miriam, who hails from the western part of Zambia, is victim to one of the most despicable social scourges to have rocked the Southern Africa region – child marriage. The practice has robbed many girls of their innocence and opportunity to further their education and improve their livelihoods.
Child marriage is a subject that has provoked serious debate and concerns in recent times especially among human rights defenders throughout the region and the world.
It is entrenched in tradition and culture and the incidence is very high in Africa, including Zimbabwe. This has made efforts to end it very difficult because tradition is a practice observed and respected over many years and no one questions it. It is the same with religion and so requires absolute obedience.
According to a human rights lawyer from Zambia, Lilian Mushota, challenging tradition or religion has a lot of repercussions.
“Marriage governed by tradition follow a set of rules and values which the concerned members of a society observe,” she said.
In Zimbabwe the majority of citizens are highly traditional just as is the case in Malawi, Mozambique and other countries in the Sadc region.
They are not inclined to have a “foreign” law apply to them in any aspect of their life.
There are religious groups in Zimbabwe that condone child marriage and there has been a lot of advocacy against it but these are practices deeply embedded in the church doctrines and are not easily swayed.
Customary marriages which are common in most African countries depend a lot on the consent of parents without which there can be no marriage.
The age of the girl is of no consequence, provided she has attained puberty.
Just over a week ago, 17 traditional leaders from Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi and Mozambique converged in Lusaka to map the way forward in the fight against child marriage.
The chiefs noted that certain traditional practices, poverty and lack of political will were the main drivers of the practice which has seen 70% of girls in Africa getting married before attaining the age of 18.
They agreed that in their areas they had at some point come face to face with the practice which some people used for their own selfish gains.
Generally a girl child is considered inferior to the boy child and that her major reason for existence is carrying out household chores and getting married once she attains puberty.
Pursuing education is not really on the agenda as most parents want to marry off their children whilst they are still young because bride price gets less as the girl gets older.
“The younger they are, the MORE MONEY they will fetch,” said senior woman chief Nkomeshya Mukamambo II of the Soli people of Lusaka province in Zambia.
Girl children are seen as a source of income and a passport out of the miserable lives of their family members.
There is also a lot of stigma around the subject and most communities are not willing to discuss the problem.
“Generally people are not talking about this problem because there is a lot of labelling and because it involves sexual matters it becomes taboo,” said Chief Mtshane from Matabeleland in Zimbabwe.
The chief, who is also the deputy president of the Chiefs’ Council, said many parents married off their young daughters because of lack of access to information on the harmful effects of child marriage.
A lot of girls have risked their lives during childbirth because of their tender ages but it is lack knowledge of such dangers to their daughters that parents were still marrying off their daughters.
He acknowledged that influence of certain religious groups was also fuelling the vice.
“In Zimbabwe there has been a sudden mushrooming of various religious groups and it is from these groups that we face challenges because the congregants do not question their leaders,” he said.
As in Miriam’s case, her parents were poor and saw an opportunity to escape from hunger by marrying her off when she was only 12 years old.
“I came back from school and my parents just blurted out that I should forget about school and that they were marrying me off to this old man,” she said.
Her own parents became her captors and tormentors. As she narrated her harrowing experience during the conference, several chiefs wept openly.
“I was naked the whole time and they would beat me up if I asked when I would go back to school because that is all I wanted,” she said.
Miriam was subjected to humiliating experiences where older women took turns to undress before her and showed her how she should act in bed when she went to her husband’s house.
“They said I needed to learn those things so that I would not bring shame on my family, but all I could think of were my friends at school,” she recalled.
A day before she was to be handed over to her new husband, she managed to send a note to her teacher who in turn contacted an organisation called Women for Change which roped in police and raided the homestead and rescued Miriam.
That was 12 years ago, and now Miriam is on the brink of a successful career in nursing after she received a sponsorship from well-wishers who had shared her sad story in Geneva last year.
While her story has a happy ending, an estimated 14 million other girls between the ages of 15 and 19 in Africa give birth each year and are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth.
According to the International Centre for Research on Women, girls who marry between the ages of 10 and 14 are five times as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as women are in their early 20s.
Traditional leaders have now decided to take up the challenge and lobby their respective leaders to recognise the problem and deal with it accordingly.
They have since signed a declaration on ending child marriages. The document which will be handed over to the Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia and Mozambican governments has a set of resolutions which will be used as guidelines in tackling the vice.
The chiefs promised to foster community dialogue on protection of the girl child, lobby governments to domesticate the international instruments that safeguard the rights of the girl and boy child.
There was also consensus to raise the current age of marriage from 18 to 21.
The media too was seen as vital in information dissemination and stimulating debate around the subject.
Speaking on the role of the media in this issue, Mamoletsane Khati, the regional programme manager for Health and Development at Panos Institute Southern Africa, said the media was key in highlighting dangers and consequences of child marriage.
“The media plays a very vital role in not only disseminating information on child marriage, but can influence decision-makers into action required to end child marriage,” she said.-panos