‘Untainted by the empowerment of education’: The tragedy of child brides

Youth activist, Josephine Mukwendi, shares her experiences of forced and early marriage and its impact on young women and girls.

On Youth Day, as we are reminded of youths killed in the Soweto students uprising of June 16 1976, one cannot forget the sacrifice they made which still reverberates through our history. They bravely fought against Afrikaans as a medium of instruction showing their maturity in making their own decisions – as activists. This is testament to how important education is to our youth.

Although I developed a sense of activism only later on in my life, I had always believed that education is a cornerstone for leadership.

I was raised as the youngest daughter in a family of five in a small mining town of Bindura in Mashonaland Central Province, Zimbabwe.

I was lucky. My parents, who were both teachers, placed much importance on our education. It was because of their guidance and nurturing, that my passion for activism took root. Zimbabwe is a country rife with patriarchy and although my parents were very forward-thinking, misogyny and toxic masculinities infected my family tree as well. After all, my grandfather enjoyed a polygamous marriage with blood sisters.

However, it was not my grandfather’s matrimonial situation that urged me to stare patriarchy in the face, rather, it was the story of my best friend, *Kudzai Moyo.

Kudzai and I were inseparable. We were both in the same primary school class and enjoyed playing with the skipping rope during break times.

I remember one cold morning in February, Kudzai and I were lining up in the assembly when her father collected her. This, I thought, was unusual. Little did I know that our playful visits would come to an end – along with Kudzai’s innocence.

It was through the gossip in town that I came to discover that Kudzai was forced into an arranged marriage to a man 33 years her senior. He also had three other wives who had not yet celebrated their 18th birthday. Kudzai’s betrothed was a church elder who did not want his wives tainted by the empowerment of education.

Of course, a patriarchal society dictates that a woman should follow the orders of her husband or father and as a result, Kudzai dropped out of school. The money that funded her education went toward purchasing a wedding dress and all the bells and whistles of a celebration. She didn’t have a choice, feeling trapped by tradition that benefited only men. Her dreams of becoming a doctor thrown away – like the grains of rice tossed at her as she exited the church.

Kudzai is one of millions of girls deprived of an education because of forced and early marriage. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund 2017 State of The World’s Children report globally, one in five girls are said to be married before the age of 18. That same report specifies that 650 million women alive today were married as children and if there is no reduction in child marriage soon, that global number will reach 1.2 billion by 2050.

The psychological and emotional trauma of forced and early marriage

Early and forced marriage puts girls at risk of psychological, sexual and physical abuse from their families or the families they are married into. The bride’s family usually believes that if the girl is married, she will be shielded from any form of violence but often this is far from reality. A consequence of such abuse – along with contributing factors such as a lack of education – is the inability of child brides to negotiate for safer sex or the use of contraception. Their agency to make decisions that shape their lives and that of their families is taboo. This also creates an atmosphere of silence when domestic abuse occurs.

Those who have the ability to work often have no control over what they earn due to gender inequality. This isolation from schools and the workplace hinders them from access to social support that limits them from networks that can increase their earning potential. According to the non-profit organisation Girls not Brides, child brides married to older men are more likely to believe that a man is justified in beating his wife than women who marry later. The same organisation estimates that, globally, 44% of girls aged 15 to 19 think a husband or a partner is justified in hitting or beating his wife or partner in certain circumstances.

Early sexual debut comes with a physical and emotional impact on these young brides, many of whom die during childbirth, or suffer from cervical cancer and obstetric fistulas later in life. Evidence from sub-Saharan Africa shows that girls who marry early also have a greater risk of contracting HIV and Aids or other sexually transmitted diseases.

“Girls are not free to follow their dreams”

Despite progressive policies and laws, what we experience on the African continent is a lack of commitment to implementing those laws designed to protect the exploitation of young women and girls. In Zimbabwe there was, and continues to be, silence around the issue of child marriage, its relationship to dropping levels of education among young women and girls and its relationship to patriarchal cultural norms and practices.

Zimbabwe, like other African countries, is signatory to a number of international and regional agreements on gender equality but in the year 2008, the African child forum ranked Zimbabwe among the poorest performing countries in implementing the legal and policy making framework to protect children against harm and exploitation.

According to Wessel van den Berg, child rights and positive parenting unit manager at Sonke Gender Justice, “the challenge remains to make commitments on paper translate into action for girls to remain free to follow their dreams”.

Girls like Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, did not let a bullet from a Taliban gunman get in the way of advocating for women empowerment through education.

At the United Nations in 2017, Malala said: “I don’t want any other girl to go through the same as me. Not all of them can fight as hard as I did. They deserve to be successful women first and take their rightful place in the community. Girls should be students and not brides. This is my message for leaders.”

What could Kudzai have become if she was afforded the opportunity to pursue her education?

A doctor, maybe?

Or perhaps even an entrepreneur?

I hope the leadership of the African continent is listening to Malala’s words.