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HARARE, Apr 9 2009 (IPS) - While her peers get ready to go to school each morning, 14-year-old Matipedza (not her real name) of Marange district in Manicaland has to stay behind to prepare breakfast for her 67-year-old husband.
Although her marriage is not legally registered, it is customarily recognised, and the teenager is expected to live as a housewife and soon bear children.
"I can’t go against [the will of] my elders and leave my husband in order to attend school. Besides, where would I go if I leave? My parents will not welcome me," said Matipedza.
Her case is not unique. In fact, the majority of school-going girls in Marange, some as young as ten, have been married to older men from their church, the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect, which is infamous for believing in polygamy. Most marriages are arranged between adult men and under-age girls.
Although it is criminal under the recently enacted Domestic Violence Act to marry off an under-age girl – the age of sexual consent in Zimbabwe is 16 years – it is difficult to stop these marriages, as members of the sect are complicit and secretive.
Recently released research by Harare-based non-governmental organisation Women and Law Southern Africa (WLSA) has shown that young girls in early marriages are likely to suffer birth complications, some of them resulting in death.
The findings have forced Zimbabwean authorities to step up efforts to stop the practice that has forced thousands of girls in the Marange, Odzi and Buhera districts of Manicaland to drop out of school.
Although current data is not available, statistics from the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture district office reveal that out of the 10,000 girls who enrolled in Form One in the Marange district in 2000, only about a third completed Form Four in 2003.
"Those who dropped out became wives, with a small number dropping out because they could not afford the fees," said a senior district education officer who did not want to be named.
Most girls stop schooling in July when the sect celebrates Passover, a religious festivity during which marriage ceremonies take place.
Gideon Mombeshora, a sect member, told IPS that most men in the church prefer to marry under-age girls because it is easier to control them. "Most men want to get married to docile women. The younger the bride the more chances for dominance for the man," he said.
He further explained the sect strongly believes in the practice of under-age brides: "Although it is not in our church’s statutes that old men should marry under-age girls, the practice is deeply entrenched in our belief system."
Former senator Sheila Mahere said early marriages are a social ill that threatens to derail government’s bid to fulfil its Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on increasing access to primary education as girls continue to drop out of the already constrained education system.
"Early marriages threaten national economic development, as bright and intelligent girls are forced out of school to become cheap labour and child bearers in their homesteads. Most of the girls become farm labourers on their husbands’ farms," she said.
The Union for the Development of Apostolic Churches in Zimbabwe-Africa (UDA-CIZA), a coalition of 160 apostolic sects in Zimbabwe, said tries to raise awareness among apostolic sect leaders of the dangers of early marriages. But in most cases, it faces serious resistance.
"The police has been the biggest let down in early forced child marriages as they have continued to turn a blind eye to these crimes," explain UDA-CIZA programme manager Edson Tsvakai. "We sometimes report some of our members to the police for these crimes but there have been very few successful prosecutions, largely because police view these cases as not serious and because some of the sect leaders are highly networked with the authorities."
In 2007, the Harare-based Girl Child Network, rescued an 11-year-old girl who had been married off to a 44-year-old man in Buhera. The man was successfully prosecuted and sentenced to six months in jail. However, shortly thereafter, the sentence was suspended and the girl had to live in a safe house because the unrepentant husband continued to claim her as his wife.
Caroline Nyamayemombe, gender officer at the United Nations Population and Development Agency (UNFPA) country office in Harare, says studies have confirmed that teenage pregnancy is on the increase in Zimbabwe and a leading cause of maternal mortality.
"Young girls are married off to men often older than their own fathers. This scenario has significantly contributed to pregnancy complications in teenage mothers. These harmful cultural practices are rampant in some districts in the country," she explained.
Nyamayemombe said apart from religious beliefs, poverty is one of the key reasons for early marriages, as UNFPA data have shown that about 80 percent of pregnant teenagers come from poor families.
"Single adolescent girls who become pregnant are more likely to drop out of school, thus compromising their future earning capacity and becoming more likely to end in poverty. Maternal mortality and mortality from HIV/AIDS related causes become a reality for these girls and often lead or exacerbate poverty," she added.
A pregnant teenager faces the risk of immature uterine muscles and mucous membranes that pose serious danger and a high risk of a ruptured uterus in cases of prolonged labour.
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