Married at Birth: Zimbabwe Women Endure Lifelong Misery

Runesu Shumba recently admitted raping a 14 year-old girl. He told a court in Zvishavane, southern Zimbabwe that he had been having sex with the girl for several years and never asked about her age. The magistrate found him guilty of ‘statutory rape’, which is having sex with a woman below the age of 16. Shumba was sentenced to perform 135 hours of community service, allowing him to work during the day and go home in the evening.

In the past, rape convictions carried sentences of no less than seven years in prison, with hard labour. However, a recent controversial High Court ruling said custodial sentences were no longer necessary for statutory rape. The ruling has been met with outrage from women’s rights activists. Activists see this as a major step backwards for women’s rights. It took a bitter fight to have rape of any kind recognised as a capital offence with a minimum jail term of seven years in the early 1990s. It also took cooperation from the prosecuting authorities.

It seems we are back to square one. In sentencing Shumba, magistrate Archie Wochiunga said it was not a valid defence for the accused person to say he did not know the girl’s age or that she lied to him. It was his duty to verify that. In practice, does it ever happen that men ask for women’s birth certificates before embarking on relationships with them? In any case, from my own experience as a journalist, human rights activist and teacher of young women, I have realised that men who prey on underage girls are usually very aware of their ages but justify their actions using all sorts of reasons. In my view, the High Court judgement dropping custodial sentences for statutory rape was driven more by pressure from influential members of society, especially politicians and religious sects whose leaders were facing jail for having sex with or marrying young girls. With the acceptance into mainstream religion of Apostolic sects that promote child marriage, it seems to have become convenient to turn a blind eye on the practices by lessening punishment for the crimes.

Former attorney-general Johannes Tomana shocked many when he said the courts were constrained in dealing with statutory rape because the vice was widespread and accepted in certain communities. I haven’t heard a lamer excuse for justifying crime or failure by the authorities to prosecute it. A more realistic assessment is that Apostolic sects have become a powerful political force because of their numbers. Senior politicians are seen hobnobbing with sect leaders campaigning for votes and lessening rape sentences appears to be some form of pay back.

Over the past couple of years I have done a lot of research on child marriage and related issues. In 2015, I had the privilege of drafting a motion and debate notes on child marriages for a state Senator. As the debates progressed in Parliament, I was surprised by the interest the subject generated across political and gender lines. So intense was the exposé of the problem by the legislators that even the First Lady was compelled to state her views on the subject. Various United Nations agencies became involved and street marches were organised to highlight the problem. In Parliament, there was talk of setting up a committee on child rights. Unfortunately, many politicians only participate in campaigns of this nature if there are direct benefits such as financial rewards or media coverage. I have noticed a slackening of interest in the subject. To keep the issue alive, for myself personally and for the benefit of the many friends and fellow activists I have met along the way, I have been doing research for a television documentary on child marriages. I have talked to numerous child brides and the men who prey on them, as well as family members, law enforcement officials, legal experts and child rescue organisations.

One image that remains ingrained in my mind is that of Precious*, who was married off by her family in 2015 to a 65 year-old man when she was 12. In those few years, she has given birth three times. One of the children died because the religious sect to which she belongs does not permit children to be immunized. The man who married Precious has six other wives of about the same age, and 28 children. He told me that he wanted to have 15 wives because respect in his sect was earned by the number of wives and children one had. He said he only wanted virgins, the reason for choosing his brides when they were still young. I was told that some of these men are paying money to parents as soon as a girl is born. When the girl is seven years old she is taken into the man’s house where she is taught how to be a “good wife”. Sex begins when she is 12 and is then expected to start bearing children. For the child molesters there is a certain warped logic in all this abuse. With the courts now more lenient on child rapists, the problem can only get worse.

*Name changed to protect the victim.

Source: John Chimunhu
John Chimunhu is a freelance journalist and independent television producer based in Zimbabwe.