Death of 15-year-old girl in childbirth reveals grim practice of child marriage in Zimbabwe

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Her son and the babies of other teenage mothers play together in the dirt while the mothers wait for their instructor.

“I learned of her death with a great shock. What if it was me? I feel lucky to be alive because I gave birth in the house. Anything could have happened,” Faith said.

Faith and other married children with whom CNN spoke did not want their names revealed for fear of being ostracized for speaking.

Machaya died in childbirth in July at the sanctuary of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, Zimbabwe police said in August. She was married to one of the church members, Hatirarami Momberume, 26.

CNN was unable to reach its lawyers.

Her death sparked an uproar in Zimbabwe. A petition against child marriage has collected thousands of signatures and many activists hope her case will reveal the practice of child marriage which is banned in the country but has continued despite the threat of legal action.

According to the Girls Not Brides campaign group in Zimbabwe, more than a third of girls are married before the age of 18 and 5% are married before their 15th birthday.

Husband and parents arrested

Following an outcry over Machaya’s case, Momberume was arrested along with Machaya’s parents, Zimbabwe Police spokesman Paul Nyathi told CNN.

Momberume faces rape charges, while her parents have been charged with obstructing justice for allegedly providing false identity documents to police while hiding her real age, Nyathi said.

Authorities allege that Machaya’s parents Edmore Machaya and Shy Mabika also promised to give Momberume a 9-year-old.

“Our investigations have shown that those involved are not opening up and trying to sweep things under the rug, especially about any activity that may be taking place in this church,” Nyathi told CNN.

Alice Mabika, speaking on behalf of Anna’s family, declined to comment when contacted by CNN about the incident.

“I have been asked not to comment on this issue until the investigations are completed,” she said.

The government has generally turned a blind eye to the practice of child marriage. Zimbabwe has two sets of marriage laws, the Marriage Act and the Customary Marriage Act. No law gives a minimum age for consent to marriage, while customary law allows polygamy.

A new marriage bill that is before Parliament for debate aims to synchronize the laws, ban the marriage of anyone under the age of 18, and prosecute anyone involved in the marriage of a minor.

A church under surveillance

The practice of child marriage is widespread in townships and rural areas of Zimbabwe, where most of the country’s poor live, and where parents often say they are forced to marry their young daughters to reduce the burden of marriage. their maintenance.

The apostolic church has also come under scrutiny, as young girls are encouraged to marry older men, for “spiritual guidance,” according to Girls Not Brides.

Human Rights Watch said child marriage is “endemic” among some apostolic churches.

“Child marriage is rampant in Zimbabwe, especially among indigenous apostolic churches, an evangelical group that mixes Christian beliefs with traditional cultures and has millions of followers across the country,” HRW said in an article.
A teenage mother told CNN she got married at 15 and was struggling to make ends meet.

Nyasha Marange, spokesperson for the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church where Anna died, said the church did not allow marriages involving children under 18 and denied that its members mistreated minors.

“Our leaders have preached against this,” Marange told CNN.

“We excommunicate any member who engages in such behavior. It is a criminal offense and should be dealt with in court as in the case of Momberume,” he told CNN.

He said the teenager died in the church-owned shrine but not inside the church premises. According to him, the government of Zimbabwe has banned religious gatherings to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and that regular religious services have not taken place since.

The shrine is where members perform prayers and receive spiritual instruction from the head of the church. It is said to be sacred because it carries spiritual power, according to church authorities.

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Marange added that the church cooperated with police and that church members helped locate Momberume when he allegedly went into hiding after his death.

Zimbabwe Council of Churches general secretary Kenneth Mtata said parents rarely report abuse to the police for fear of “embarrassing” the church.

Mtata told CNN that child molesters in these churches, when apprehended, rarely face consequences.

“At the moment, we have a lot of cases where the conviction doesn’t seem to be happening, and a lot of people are getting away with it,” said Mtata.

Containment causes rise in teenage pregnancies

The Covid-19 lockdown last year led to an increase in teenage marriages, activists told CNN.

Many schoolgirls have been forced to stay at home, leading to an increase in child marriage, according to Natsiraishe Maritsa, whose initiative is to teach self-defense classes to teenage mothers in Epworth, one of the townships. the poorest in southern Harare.

“Most of the children in school have nothing to do because the schools are closed. It pushes them to marry early,” Maritsa told CNN.

Between January and February 5 this year, nearly 5,000 teenage girls became pregnant while 1,174 child marriages were registered, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Women’s Affairs Sithembiso Nyoni told the country’s parliament in March.

Women’s Minister Nyoni said officials were collecting data compiling statistics on teenage pregnancies, adding that rural areas were most affected.

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“We haven’t had an update yet, but in rural Zimbabwe, pregnancies are not declining as expected. We are still compiling the data and hopefully we can see the scale. Men should stop this behavior, ”she said. noted.

She also called on the authorities to take action against churches that abuse teenage girls.

“We are saying that all of these churches that abuse children should be condemned. We want all of these churches that start things in God’s name to be responsible and not to abuse children,” Nyoni told CNN.

A life of pain and misery

Early marriage and lack of qualifications often condemn young girls to a life of suffering and misery.

Faith told CNN her parents forced her to marry a 26-year-old man after dropping out of school at 15.

She says she has lost all hope of ever going back to school. Faith’s husband works in a gold mine and the couple often don’t see each other for weeks. What they both earn from their low-paying jobs can barely support the family.

“I survive by doing menial jobs. It’s hard to have soap to wash my child’s clothes. It’s a tough life,” she sighed.

Spiwe 17 years old, is a friend of Faith. She told CNN she got married at 15 after her parents divorced.

Arimuzhu earns less than $ 2 a day doing laundry and other household chores for the city’s middle-class workers. She says her 9 month old son is often hungry. “Life is just difficult,” she said.

Rutendo watches soberly as Arimuzhu tells his story. She is worried and thoughtful.

The 16-year-old is pregnant and says she has not yet signed up for antenatal care at the local clinic. The teenager says her husband works in a gold mine and their combined wages aren’t enough to keep them afloat.

Mungai says her husband often beats her when they argue over the family’s meager finances.

“Every time I complain about hunger he gets angry,” she said, her voice crackling. “There is no peace in the house.”

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