WHEN Anna Machaya died giving birth at a shrine to one of Zimbabwe’s most secretive religious sects, there was outcry across the country.
Anna was just a child, having turned 15 just 10 days before her death on July 15, 2021. She was carrying the baby of Hatirarami Momberume, her husband of 26 years. It is unclear when they married, but it was with the consent of her parents, who belong to the Apostolic Church Johane Marange (Marange), a conservative religious sect accused of marrying underage girls to older men. When their daughter died, the parents tried to cover it up, police say.
“The parents openly lied to the police,” said a report on the Zimbabwe Republic Police website.
Police spokesman Paul Nyathi said the parents tried to hide their daughter’s true age by showing investigators the identity documents of her 22-year-old cousin.
Anna’s death has renewed calls for the Zimbabwean government to crack down on religious sects like Marange, which critics accuse of institutionalizing the sexual abuse and marriage of girls to older men.
Child marriage is rampant in the country, with 33% of women and 4% of men between the ages of 20 and 49 saying they got married before reaching adulthood of 18, according to a 2019 survey from the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency. But critics say adults who arrange child marriages are rarely prosecuted because sects like Marange wield so much political power.
Aaron Nhepera, the permanent secretary in the Department of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, denies that the government is ignoring alleged church crimes.
“We haven’t closed our eyes,” says Nhepera. “Any issue brought to our attention is investigated impartially.”
In a written statement, Nyathi says the police do not have data on child marriage cases as the current law does not prohibit it. But he says police prosecute offenders under laws prohibiting sex with minors. Between 2018 and 2021, police handled more than 10,100 cases of people accused of having sex with children, he says.
Zimbabwe’s National Assembly recently passed a bill that could formally ban child marriages and enable police to properly prosecute offenders. It awaits the signature of President Emmerson Mnangagwa. But child rights advocates say even if the bill becomes law they doubt it will make a difference as child marriage is a societal issue which is why it is prevalent in sects like Marange.
Human rights lawyer Sharon Hofisi said that while the bill clearly prohibits child marriages, it would not be effective without proactive campaigns by the government, media and independent institutions to change the attitudes of society with regard to this practice.
“Sex with children under (consent to) 16 seems commonplace, but law enforcement has been responsive, especially when it comes to the Marange sect, which uses religion to justify sex with minors,” Hofisi said.
Johane Marange founded the eponymous church in 1932. What was initially a small sect made up mostly of his extended family became popular among Zimbabweans because he mixed the teachings of Christianity with traditional beliefs like polygamy, which existed before European colonization. With over 1.2 million followers, it is one of the largest apostolic churches in Zimbabwe, giving it significant political power.
Kudzai Biri, a Zimbabwean-born professor at the University of Bamberg in Germany, says the close relationship between politics and religion has made it difficult to tackle child marriage. Politicians protect sects like Marange in order to gain votes, she says, a practice that late former president Robert Mugabe normalized and which has continued under the current president.
“They are sacrificing social justice for political gain,” Biri says.
The Marange sect’s political connections extend all the way to the highest levels of government.
Mugabe and Mnangagwa had addressed congregations of worshipers in Marange at the invitation of high priest Noah Taguta, the sect’s late leader. When Taguta died on April 17 at the age of 82, Mnangagwa said the government would cover part of the funeral costs.
The president also sent a delegation of ministers to deliver his condolence message in which he described Taguta as a leader who “lit up the life of the little girl in the church.”
Abraham Mafararikwa, one of the main leaders of Marange, denies that the church tries to influence politicians in order to gain government protection.
“Our church is not involved in politics because politics is a dirty game,” he says.
Mafararikwa acknowledges that Anna was a member of his church, but he denies that his church condones child marriage. The church automatically expels those who marry underage girls, he says.
“These are all rumors from people who want to tarnish the image of our church,” he says.
But interviews with some churchgoers contradict this.
Mary, who declined to give her surname for fear of repercussions, says she was born and raised in the church and is a firm believer in its teachings. Mary (37) says that when she was 15, her parents married her off to a 27-year-old man in church. She says child marriage still happens in the church and she defends the practice.
“People condemn our church for marrying off young children, but children as young as fifth graders engage in sex,” she says.
“A minor who has gone to see her husband to have sex is better than one who does it outside marriage.”
Unlike Mary, Patricia Moyo says she and her family decided to leave the church in Marange after decades of faith. Moyo was born in the church, married, and had nine children, none of whom were vaccinated.
In eight years, four of the children, aged 1 to 7, have died because Marange members are not allowed to seek treatment in hospitals, she said.
“The loss of a child is the most painful thing a mother can experience,” says Moyo. When her other five children contracted measles in 2020, Moyo defied the church and immediately took them to a nearby hospital.
After their recovery, she decided to walk away from the church she had known all her life.
She says the decision not to take her other four children to hospital before they die still haunts her.
“It was my duty to protect my children,” she said, holding back tears. “I let them down and I regret the choices I made.”
Although Permanent Secretary Nhepera says the government is investigating each case thoroughly, critics find it hard to believe justice has been served for Anna. Her parents were charged, but were only fined for trying to mislead investigators. Momberume, her husband, was arrested, charged and released on bail before failing to appear for a scheduled court date in November, said Brian Majamanda, the lawyer representing him. Neither the lawyer nor the police know where he is. — World press review