During the recently held Southern African Regional Students and Youth Conference (SARSYC) on sexual and reproductive health , one could easily note that a section of participants from across the nine countries represented were still very convinced that child marriage is more of a cultural issue than a result of poverty.
But alas, it is not.
While we have sections of society that blindly accept such arguments, making statements like, “It was passed on to us from generation to generation by our ancestors”, this is not true. As primitive as we might think they were, it is far from truth that we had an ancestry that celebrated the marrying off of girls who would have not even experienced their first menstrual cycle.
History and even folktales tell us that marrying off of young girls was usually practised in crisis situations, especially during drought periods. According to the traditional narratives that we have heard so many times, it was during such times when a young girl would be given to a rich man, whatever the age, in exchange for bags of grain. Child marriage has never been a cultural practice. Not at any given time. It was and is still a product of poverty, where young girls are taken as surety for a better life by desperate parents.
Child Marriage as a Global Challenge
Globally, it is observed that the level of poverty in a country almost always directly correlates to the levels of child marriages in that country. In other words, the poorest countries are more likely to have serious cases of child marriages than economically stable nations.
Let us look at the countries with the highest cases of child marriages. According to the pressure organisation Girls not Brides Global the 10 worst affected countries are Niger, Central African Republic, Chad, Bangladesh, Mali, Guinea, South Sudan, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Mozambique. These are the same countries that are classified among the world’s poorest countries.
If we look at a country like Chad, we are talking about a nation with limited electricity in its capital city. World Bank notes that in terms of other economic performance indicators, the GNP per-capita, for instance, was US$180 in the late 1990s, compared with US$490 for sub-Saharan Africa Let’s move out of Africa and go to Bangladesh. In 2009, UNICEF reported that 33 million children in Bangladesh, about half of all children in that country, were living in poverty while about one in four children is deprived of at least four basic needs including food, education, health, information, shelter, water and sanitation .
And coming to our motherland; It is sad to note that cases of child marriages are on the increase in Zimbabwe, with the phenomenon beginning in the years when our economic fortunes started collapsing. As things got worse, the challenges exponentially increased to the point where we are today, Harare is a pale shadow of its former sunshine city status and where national industry is operating below 40% capacity utilisation, according to the 2014 Confederation of Zimbabwe Industries Manufacturing Survey.
Here we can give reference to the 2015 study which was done by Ministry of Health and Child Care with support from United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) to find out the determinants of child marriages in the country’s most affected district, Hurungwe. That study revealed that out of every 100 girls aged 18-19 years, 42 of them have had a pregnancy. The prevalence of teenage pregnancy among girls in the 15-17 years age group was 6.6%. These are statistics are very high and disturbing.
Therefore, the point here is child marriage has less to do with culture, rather it is a painful outcome of poverty. If we don’t empower the girls, improve their financial independence and do the best we can to reduce poverty in our societies, we will not serve the situation. Child marriages and teenage pregnancies are now a major cause for concern in Zimbabwe. The sooner we address this challenge, the better for the lives of our young girls and the society at large.
Girls as a Source of Income
We have a section of men within our society who attach a materialistic and financial value to girls, and not treat them as an independent people with their own destinies.
I mentioned above that even back in the days, girls were used as a means to get their families out of crisis situations like famine. Today, it is still the same concept but thinly veiled under controversial practices like lobola that have since ceased to function according to their true intended traditional purposes.
As long as we still have parents and guardians who take girls as a source of income, a financial surety that can be used to cushion them in times of financial desperation, we are likely to witness more young girls being married off.
If we are to win this battle against child marriages in Zimbabwe, and in Africa as a whole, we need to make sure that girls are economically empowered. It is more of an economically related challenge than a cultural problem.
Jephiter Tsamwi is the Information and Advocacy officer for SAYWHAT. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org
Main image taken from blog.ulwazi.org