By Kuda Chitsike
During this year’s 16 days of activism against gender based violence with the theme “From Peace in the Home to Peace to in our communities: Promoting safe spaces for women and girls,” I am going to focus on child marriage. The perpetuation of child marriage in our society is a sure way to never reach the desired goal of peace in the home and in communities because child marriage is a union entered into without the consent of both the parties. What is marriage in the eyes of a playful 12 year old when she is probably in her early stages of puberty, becoming a woman- yet- still a child? What does marriage mean to her when she should be playing, going to school, doing homework and not wo/manning a household or getting raped by a grown man. Is the ‘marriage’ about the child or really about the adults who have connived and agreed to it?
A couple of months ago I was part of a focus group discussion with women on child marriage in Goromonzi. I found these women’s thoughts particularly interesting. One woman stated that her standing in society is much better as the mother of a married child, notwithstanding the child’s age, rather than being the mother of a single mother. Other women agreed with her, stating that their dignity was at stake. The matter of marriage ceased to be about the child.
In Shona, when someone gets married it is said “wadadisa” you have made us the envy of the neighborhood. Again this is not about the bride but about the parents and the family. The family is seen to have raised their child well so much so that someone wants to marry her. This is seen as more important than the fact that the child is under-age and likely to face extreme challenges as a child bride. Actually, the younger the child the more likely she is a virgin, and the higher the value of the bride-price. This price is the price of virginity and that is the reason many of the women gave for allowing their children to be taken as child brides.
Often, the reasons given as causes of child marriage are religious or cultural practices and poverty. However questions always come to mind about why, if it is poverty, the parents choose to sell younger girls instead of the older girls or the boys. The answer was provided by these women we talked to – virginity.
When we asked the women whether they would prefer their daughters to marry later, after they had finished school and over 18, the answer was a resounding Yes which came with a big BUT. These mothers and grandmothers wanted their children to stay in school and get a proper education which most of them admitted they didn’t have, but they said they were finding it hard to keep girls in school because it is difficult to ensure that they remain virgins until marriage. They stated that young people of today are secretive and ‘vanoda zvinhu’ – they like things. . What I found shocking was that some of the women wanted to bring back virginity testing as they said that the fear of being found a non-virgin could keep the young girls from being intimate with boys. There was however an acknowledgement that we now live in an era where children know their rights and they report any form of abuse to the police.
As many organisations do their anti-child marriage campaigns; it is critical that they should address this issue: the value of virginity. Critical questions should be asked to parents, religious leaders, traditional leaders and society in general. Is virginity more valuable than the life of a child? Should a child’s future, health, ambitions, hopes, dreams and aspirations be jeopardised by the desire to marry her off as a virgin? Is virginity worth the suffering she endures when she is forced into sudden adulthood facing difficulties in giving birth and taking care of a husband, children and a home?
There is a drive, currently, to realign marriage laws to the constitution and ensure that marriage is for adults over the age of 18 who have given their consent. The law would be one step towards providing safe spaces for women and girls. However, the way we think, reason and act as a society matters more. We should let girls enjoy their youth and marry men of their choice, virgins or not.