This year Yvonne Mandigu would have been sitting for her Ordinary level examinations together with her fellow classmates. Instead, she will have to watch her peers progress with their education with envy and regret.
Mandigu will regret that one night she decided to accommodate her then boyfriend for a few minutes in her room at her family home in Epworth. She will always blame the few seconds during which she sneaked her boyfriend into the house without the knowledge of her parents, in the hope that he would leave without being discovered.
Unfortunately for Mandigu, her father became suspicious of the footsteps he heard and suspected that two pairs of feet had just entered his house. A further investigation through the window to Mandigu’s bedroom confirmed his suspicions and all hell broke loose.
Mandigu shares that her father entered the bedroom in search of the man he had seen from outside. At first, Mandigu’s boyfriend hid behind the curtain, but it was only a matter of seconds before his future father–in-law found him. When the moment of reckoning came, the intruder took to his heels and fled.
At first, Mandigu followed suit, but she soon came back home to explain herself and apologise. Her father would not hear any of it. He wanted her out of the house – for good. Mandigu’s efforts to ask for forgiveness from her father were frustrated by a family friend who had married off his daughter when she was only in Grade 7. This family friend advised her father that if Mandugu had been bold enough to have her boyfriend in the house at night, she was ready to get married.
This is the story Mandigu shared with her former classmates during an outreach programme held recently in Epworth. Munhanaga Affairs Trust supported by Plan International Zimbabwe and Roots had organised a forum for survivors of child marriages to open up about their experiences and share what transpired before and after they became child brides.
Yvonne Mandugu was among those who felt that sharing her life story and experience would help other young girls, parents and teachers to make the right choices and reduce cases of child marriages.
“I accepted that what I had done was wrong and the only thing I could do was to apologise sincerely,” explained Mandigu.
She highlighted that all she had needed was her father’s forgiveness to go back home and continue with her education.
“I was not even pregnant when I was chased away from home,” she said. “My father thought forcing me to go with my boyfriend was the best way to punish me.”
The only place Mandigu could go to after the incident was to her boyfriend’s house. Eventually he paid tsvakiraikuno to the father who accepted it. This is how Mandugu dropped out of school and became a child bride.
Perpetuating oppressive cultural practises
Mandigu’s story is a typical case of a family that chose to live up to certain cultural expectations at the expense of the child.
In African culture, it is considered taboo for a girl to engage in sexual activities before lobola has been paid to her parents. It is even highly disrespectful if she brings the man to her parents’ house before visiting her aunt to inform her about her relationship.
It is out of the strong belief that marriage is a correctional measure that Mandugu’s family decided it was better for her get married than for her family to live in shame if she had returned to the family home. This would have been a lighter punishment. However, the harsher punishment Mandigu got in the form of early child marriage has affected her whole life.
Sometimes a second chance is a better option.
Mandigu admits that what she did was wrong. This is evident in the fact that after fleeing the house in fear, she came back home to ask for forgiveness from her family. Her family could have accepted her and given her a punishment that did not involve her going to live with a man who was eight years older than her. At that time, Mandigu’s husband then boyfriend was 24 and she was 16.
The influence of a family friend added to the already existing cultural and societal belief that the only way to correct Mangigu’s mistake was to marry her off to her boyfriend. Even if it meant she would not continue with school, doing what was acceptable to the society was more important.
It’s difficult to get back lost time
One common factor amongst survivors of child marriage who shared their experiences on the day is the fact that it is difficult for one to pick up their life from where they left off before marriage. It is possible with the correct support structures and environment, but it is still very difficult for many.
Many assume that lack of financial resources or unwillingness to go back to school are the reasons why some girls go back to school. But stigma can play a huge role in preventing girls continuing with their education.
Yes Mandigu is still in touch with her former school mates and they actually relate very well, but it can never be the same.
“I feel much older than my friends because they call me by my child’s name, explained Mandigu.
Even if Mandigu wanted to go back to school, some of her friends can only communicate with her without their parents’ knowledge. She is treated like an outcast who is a bad influence on her peers.
It takes a lot of confidence and a good support structure for any young girl to have the confidence to go back to school after being a victim of child marriage. It will be difficult for her to come back and blend in when it is now public knowledge that she has slept with a man and probably had a baby. That’s just how our society thinks. That’s how we are taught to think.
Once married you cannot go back to school. You just can’t.
We need to change our way of thinking
If we avoid thinking along the lines of societal and cultural beliefs, we can actually minimise the cases of early child marriages. Our cultural practices place marriage as the ultimate achievement or as the only solution to some problems, but that need not be the case.
Mandigu’s family could have taken their daughter back and paid a deaf ear to what society had to say. They could have kept the issue within the family and resolved it in a way that ensured that Mandigu could continue with her education as far as she could go. Mandigu is not the only one who had to get married as a result of failure by parents to forgive mistakes; there are many others. It takes only a few minutes to make a life-changing decision for a child.
The decision by Mandigu’s family not to let her back into the house that night removed her access and right to education, and even a chance for a better life. The time and opportunities she has lost may never be recovered.
Main image from youthvillage.co.zw