The consequences of child marriage in regards to maternal and child health and welfare; physical and sexual abuse and violence; and HIV and AIDS are well documented. The negative outcomes mainly stem from the loss of decision making power on the part of the girl caught up in these (usually) intergenerational sexual relationships.
The Regional Interagency Task Team on AIDS in Eastern and Southern Africa (RIATT-ESA) in collaboration with the Regional Psychosocial Initiative (REPSSI) and the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe (ACCZ) recently held a series of dialogues with members of the Apostolic Church and the Zion Church. This group of churches is known to accept the practise of child marriages and discourage its members from accessing public medical and educational services. The dialogues and accompanying Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials reached more than 50 000 members in 4 of the 10 provinces of Zimbabwe in April and May 2016. It is estimated that there are about 1.6 million members countrywide.
What emerged from the dialogues unsurprisingly was that a potent mix of socio-cultural and religious concerns, are responsible for the high prevalence of child marriages. What was surprising however were the child and social protection goals that were cited by the participants as the major motivators for marrying off young girls. They spoke of marriage as a way of protecting their children spiritually, morally, socially and economically that were under threat in this “modern age”. They specifically mentioned:
- The desire for their children to gain the special reward in heaven reserved for girls who married virgin.
- The need to protect girls from teenage pregnancy and the social sanction that comes with being a single mother.
- Marriage as a respectable way out of poverty for a girl and her family, particularly in cases of food insecurity and education and employment were not accessible anyway.
They also spoke of the efficacy of virginity testing as opposed to sex education in schools that they said tended to encourage early sexual debut and unwanted pregnancies among girls.
What the participants were not aware of/did not bring up in the discussions was the context of gender inequality and male domination within which these “protections” were exercised. In reality, young girls become a currency to be traded to meet the objectives of maintaining and growing the congregations. A typical apostolic church family consists of multiple wives and a large number of children.
With regards to the above, child protection and social protection issues may be the common ground on which to base interventions that address child marriage within religious settings. While enforcing national policies and laws on the legal age of consent to sex and of marriage is very important, only change from within is sustainable. Working with partners from within these settings in these socio-religious settings is key to identifying and implementing alternative rights based ways of protecting girls.
RIATT-ESA Programme Manager