Child Marriages, a pandemic in dire need of own vaccine

By Owen Dhliwayo

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director General of the World Health Organization on 30 January 2020 announced that the COVID-19 was a public health emergency of international concern.

This was followed by a declaration on 11 March 2020 rendering it a global pandemic. In response to both the announcement and declaration, the Zimbabwean government announced a 21-day national lockdown with effect from 30 March 2020 with a sole aim of curbing the further spreading of the virus.

This year in February 2021, the government launched a countrywide COVID-19 Vaccine Deployment and Roll out Plan. The vaccine deployment plan has a target of 10 million people (60% of the population) so as to achieve the national herd immunity.

These measures were done because the corona virus was decimating human lives at an alarming rate. In a recent report launched by the Zimbabwe Democracy Institute, Locking Down Democracy in Zimbabwe’s COVID – 19 Era, it is noted that the COVID -19 has infected around 400 million people and killing around 4.5 million people worldwide.

On 24 March 2020, President E D Mnangagwa established an inter – ministerial ad hoc National COVID – 19 Response Taskforce with the mandate of dealing with the corona virus. Furthermore, the Minister of Finance in his “The Pandemic and the Economy: Business Recovery Support Initiatives – Fiscal Interventions and Perspectives report said that “So far, over US$127.3 million has been spent on procurement of 12.5 million vaccines and 15 million syringes from various countries.”

This showed some level of seriousness in dealing with a pandemic that has decimated lives in our communities. The same commitment in dealing with a medical pandemic is required to deal a social pandemic like child marriages.

Child marriages in Zimbabwe are decimating young lives at an alarming rate. Section 81 (1) defines a child as “every boy and girl under the age of eighteen (18) years” and subsection 1 (e) states that children must be “protected from economic and sexual exploitation…

On 20 January 2016, the Constitutional Court ruled that section 22 of the Marriages Act is unconstitutional and declared that “no person, girl or boy should be married before the age of 18”.

Recent data from the Multiple Indicators Survey (MIS) estimates that the country’s child marriage rate is 33%, slightly higher than the global average of 29% making Zimbabwe among the 41 countries globally with an alarming rate of child marriages.

The Zimstat’s 2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS) found that the highest prevalence of child marriages, 50.9%, is among families whose heads identified their religion as traditional followed by the Apostolic sect with 46.2%.

Child marriage results in higher-than-average maternal morbidity and mortality rates for 15- 19-year-olds and higher infant mortality among their children. There is diminished capacity to responsibly raise their children to be productive citizens and also higher rates of violence in marriage.

Child marriage can lead to an intergenerational cycle of poverty as girls are more likely lack the skills and knowledge needed to lift their families out of poverty.

Thus, this kind of marriage is a breeding ground for multiple vulnerabilities, all of which reflect women’s continuing low status in society, relative to men.

Women constitute 51% of the total population and having the majority of the population trapped in a cycle of poverty due to unmitigated child marriage practices is a cocktail for socio-economic disaster.

Child marriages expose teen girls to their first births which normally are always riskier and usually lead to pregnancy complications associated with young, biologically-immature mothers. The case of the late Annah Machaya easily comes to mind.

Anna Machaya was a fifteen (15) year-old-girl who reportedly died on July 15 2021 and was secretly buried two hours later. She died whilst having her first birth at an apostolic church shrine in Marange, Manicaland Province. She was forced out of school while doing Form One in Mhondoro to get married to one Evans Momberume.

Developmental theories posit that child development reflect an attempt to relate behavioral change to chronological age, thus diverse behavioral characteristics are related to specific stages of growth. The dominant developmental theories are Freud’s theory of personality development and Piaget’s theory of perception.

Both Freud and Piaget explained human development in terms of interactions of biological determinants and environmental events.

A child at 12 years is at a formal operational thought level where it is characterized by the initial development of the ability to develop hypotheses and deduce new concepts, therefore, marrying girls at this age is detrimental to their full intellectual development.

Through child marriage, a girl is rushed into adulthood and our community has a cohort of undeveloped child mothers. Thus, a girl child is denied the process of socialization and cultivating relations among her peers. This is how the child marriage pandemic is decimating our future generations.

Valentine (1968) says that the essence of poverty is inequality and child marriages perpetuate serious inequalities. A child faced with numerous choices in life has the potential of avoiding situations of poverty. The transmission of poverty through the practice of child marriages over generations make the girl child victim of our dysfunctional subculture. Inequalities drive the prevalence of child marriages. Culture and religion become a tool for the subjugation of girls to the commodification of marriage institution.

There was a time when the division of mankind into classes of master and slave appeared to be natural even to the most cultivated minds. This assertion was vigorously fought and victory was attained. At the moment, our communities are grappling with the same kind of assertion in regard to the domination of men over women. Child marriages are perpetuated by an archaic and outdated doctrine with all the fanaticism in which men cling to the beliefs that justify their passions and legitimize their personal interests.

Child marriage is a practice that entrench inequalities in our communities. Fighting child marriage is a way of addressing serious inequalities found in our communities.

The government must ensure that child marriage is at the center of national development plans and policies specifically in the area of education and empowerment interventions targeting young girls and communities.