Report: A religious sect tolerates child marriage


By Linda Mujuru
WHEN Anna Machaya died giving birth at the shrine of one of Zimbabwe’s most secretive religious sects, there was a nationwide outcry.

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 Johane Marange Apostolic Church, a conservative religious sect accused of marrying underage girls to older men. When their daughter died, the parents tried to cover it up, police said.

“The parents openly lied to the police,” said a report posted on the police website.

Police spokesman Deputy Commissioner Paul Nyathi said the parents tried to hide their daughter’s true age by showing investigators the identification documents of her 22-year-old cousin.

Anna’s death has renewed calls for the Zimbabwean government to crack down on religious sects like Johane 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 at the Ministry of Home Affairs and Cultural Heritage, denies that the government is ignoring alleged crimes by churches like Marange.

“We didn’t turn a blind eye,” Nhepera said. “Any issue brought to our attention is investigated impartially.”

In a written statement, Nyathi said the police do not have data on child marriage cases as the current law does not prohibit it. But he said 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 said.

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 said even if the bill becomes law, they doubt it will make a difference because child marriage is a societal issue, which is why it is prevalent in sects like Marange.

Sharon Hofisi, a human rights lawyer, said that while the bill clearly prohibits child marriages, it will not be effective without proactive campaigns by government, media and independent institutions to change attitudes of society towards the

“Sex relations with children under the legal age of [consent at] 16 seems endemic, 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 sect in 1932. What was initially a small sect made up mostly of his extended family became popular among Zimbabweans because it mixed the teachings of Christianity with traditional beliefs like polygamy, which existed before the European colonization. With over 1.2 million followers, it is one of the largest apostolic sects in Zimbabwe, giving it significant political power.

Kudzai Biri, a Zimbabwean-born professor at the University of Bamberg in Germany, said the close relationship between politics and religion made it difficult to tackle child marriage. Politicians protect sects like Marange in order to gain votes, she said, a practice former president Robert Mugabe normalized and which has continued under the current president. “They are sacrificing social justice for political gain,” Biri said.

The Marange sect’s political connections extend all the way to the highest levels of government. Mugabe and Mnangagwa both addressed congregations of devotees in Marange at the invitation of late sect leader Noah Taguta. 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 Marange’s top leaders, 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 said.

Mafararikwa acknowledges that Anna was a member of his sect, but he denies that Marange tolerates child marriages.

But interviews with some followers of the sect contradict this. Mary, who declined to give her surname for fear of repercussions, said she was born and raised in the sect and a firm believer in its teachings. Mary, 37, said when she was 15, her parents married her off to a 27-year-old cult member. She said child marriages still happen and she defends the practice.

“People condemn our church for marrying off young children, but children as young as fifth graders are engaging in sex,” she said. “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 said she and her family decided to leave the Marange sect after decades of faith.

Moyo was born into the sect, 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.

“Losing a child is the most painful thing a mother can go through,” Moyo said.

When her other five children contracted measles in 2020, Moyo defied the cult and immediately took them to a nearby hospital. After their recovery, she decided to walk away from the sect she had known all her life. She said the decision not to take her other four children to hospital before they died 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.”

Nhepera, the permanent secretary, also said the government was investigating each case thoroughly, with critics struggling to believe there was justice 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.

  • ˜Linda Mujuru is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Harare.


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