Child marriage robs girls of their reproductive right

SOME time last year during the International Conference on Aids and STIs in Africa (Icasa), delegates listened in hushed silence as a young woman from Bindura narrated her ordeal as a child bride.

Source: Child marriage robs girls of their reproductive right – NewsDay Zimbabwe July 16, 2016


“The night I lost my innocence, I thought death had come to take me away. My then 44-year-old husband was not sympathetic and even laughed in my face,” Samantha recalled.

She was only 14 and had to relive the nightmare every single day of her life.

“He had another wife, but for the next two weeks, he raped me while his first wife cheered him on,” she said, bravely fighting back tears threatening to spill from her eyes.

Child marriage often has devastating consequences on a girl’s health, especially reproductive issues which include maternal health and family planning.

Often, the young brides are initiated into sexual activity at an age when their bodies are still developing and when they know little about their sexual and reproductive health rights.

Ministry of Health and Child Care family health director, Bernard Madzima said adolescent fertility issues were of great concern to government as these had serious health implications.

“These young girls often experience challenges when giving birth and are at risk of complications like obstetric fistula,” he said.

Obstetric fistula is a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder that is caused by prolonged obstructed labour. It is one of the most serious and tragic childbirth injuries.

It leaves women leaking urine and solid waste, or both, and often leads to chronic medical problems, depression, social isolation and deepening poverty.

Samantha fell pregnant within three months and although she did not experience any problems throughout, giving birth was a bad experience.

The family, being ardent members of an ultra-conservative apostolic group, did not take her to hospital, but instead, sent her to their own bush birth camp known as “chitsidzo”.

But because of her age, Samantha struggled for hours on end. The religious birth attendants, sensing danger, ferried her in a wheel barrow and dumped her at her parents’ home. She survived the ordeal, but lost the baby.

Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Women’s Affairs, Gender and Community Development chairperson Biata Nyamupinga said elimination of child marriages was taking too long.

“The issue of child marriages is a complex one and we are not moving with the speed that is required to end this,” she said.

Early this year, legislators signed a pledge to promote the protection of the girl child against abuse.

Over 14 million girls (most of whom are child brides) between the ages of 15 and 19 in Africa give birth each year and are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth.

Babies born to these children are more likely to be stillborn, premature, underweight and at increased risk of dying in infancy.

“Complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death in young women aged 15–19,” says Flavia Bustreo, assistant director-general for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health at the World Health Organisation.

Often married to older husbands, it can be extremely difficult for girls to negotiate safe sexual practices and the use of family planning methods.

They are more likely to be infected with HIV by their older spouses, who may have more extensive sexual histories.
Child marriage is a huge issue in Zimbabwe, which is among other African countries, with the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world (31%).

The gaps in the law, extreme poverty, poor access to education and harmful religious beliefs and social norms fuel this practice.

“The Zimbabwean government should show that it is serious about tackling the scourge of child marriage and raise the minimum age to 18,” Human Rights Watch senior Africa researcher Dhewa Mavhinga said.

Legislator Innocent Gonese said the issue of aligning the legislation with the Constitution, which bans the practice, was only but “one side of the coin”.

“There is need for more awareness raising within communities because that is where we have all these religious and traditional groups that carry out such practices,” he said.

Recently, some of the legislators went around provinces in a bid to understand the reasons why child marriages are still being practicised.

“We went to Mashonaland Central, which is one of the areas where child marriages are most prevalent. We need to tackle the root causes and not treat the symptoms,” Nyamupinga said.

The Member of Parliament also lamented the low coverage of child marriages by the media.