Sects move on child marriages long overdue
THE man on the street could not fathom how a 15-yearold girl would have two children and be expecting a third.
Next to her would be a man four times her age — her husband, who through a dream was shown by the “holy spirit” that that young girl was “the one”.
But for fear of going against the “holy vision” and supposed prophetic word, the girl’s family offered their daughter as a wife to the madzibaba, a member of an apostolic sect.
This has gone on for years with young girls being married off at a tender age under the guise of church beliefs.
They were not allowed to reach their full potential and their hopes and aspirations were usurped from before their very eyes.
Scores of women and girls from apostolic sects have over the years suffered as a result of oppressive church beliefs.
“I was married young myself and have always taken what my husband says as law. I got married not because I wanted to or because I was ready, a decision was made on my behalf and I couldn’t refuse my parents their wishes. But now I’m happy that the church itself is now fighting to end child marriages. My daughters stand a better chance than I did. Even if my husband doesn’t listen to me, at least the church is on my side,” said Ms Ellen Sibanda, a member of an apostolic sect in Bulawayo who got married when she was 16.
President of the Apostolic Christian Council of Zimbabwe (ACCZ), Archbishop Johannes Ndanga, recently said the organisation will not protect anyone found guilty of promoting or engaging in child marriages using church beliefs — much to the reprieve of many.
“Those who want to have visions or dreams of which woman they should marry should dream of single mothers, widows and not young girls. Why do they only dream of young girls? Why do they never dream of older, widowed women and or single mothers?” asked Archbishop Ndanga.
He said there are hundreds of women out there who want to be married and men should target them, instead of young girls.
Archbishop Ndanga said the church was behind proposed amendments to the Marriage Act that will make it illegal to marry a person below the age of 18.
He said the church was out to dispel the myth that apostolic sects preyed on children for sex.
“We’re saying a young girl is not yet ripe for marriage and so shouldn’t have her life ruined by a selfish man who claims to have had a divine vision that he should marry her. According to Genesis 2 verse 18, God says it’s not proper for a man to live alone adding ‘I will find a helper who is suitable for thee’.”
The word “suitable”, Archbishop Ndanga said, should be noted because sleeping with a young girl is damaging her and it is “as good as eating a raw mango.”
Apostolic sects are accused of being breeding grounds for child molesters with scores of children suffering in silence. But the ACCZ president says enough is enough.
“We fully support the judgment that was set by the judiciary because it’s in full support of the girl child’s rights. It empowers the system to deal with such people and we won’t cover up for anyone caught in this act. We won’t allow anyone to use or hide under church beliefs. We’ll assist in every way to ensure the law brings perverts who hide behind religion, to book. We’re actually helping by handing over such people to the police,” said Archbishop Ndanga.
To curb child marriages, the ACCZ has opened Gender and Child Care Unit desks throughout the country which look out for such matters, helping in apprehending anyone found guilty.
Although more still has to be done to end child marriages and bring perpetrators of sexual abuse to book, the move by the church is a step in the right direction.
Aside from promoting child marriages, apostolic sects have been notorious for discouraging members from immunisation, hospital delivery and seeking medical attention in general, recommending prayer and faith instead.
Early this year, a Johane Marange Apostolic Sect member from Gutu in Masvingo province nearly killed his pregnant wife when he allegedly enlarged her birth canal using a home-made knife when she went into labour.
She was forcibly rushed to the clinic by a team of village health workers as her husband’s sect does not allow members to seek treatment at health institutions.
In Zimbabwe, 610 women out of every 100 000 die while giving birth, with a significant portion of the deaths attributed to apostolic sects that did not believe in hospital delivery.
Archbishop Ndanga said the church had changed its stance on hospitals and encouraged members to seek medical attention, especially when giving birth.
There has been an improvement at Johane Marange on the children’s right to health, he said as sect members are now getting their children vaccinated in hospitals and clinics.
Historically, the Johane Marange sect barred members from seeking medical attention completely.
Government is actively involved in the fight against child marriages as legislation against marriage of girls under 18 is currently underway.
Zimbabwe Young Women’s Network for Peace Building director Ms Grace Chirenje said the campaign by the ACCZ is progressive in terms of child marriages but violates rights to choose a religion and how people elect to address their health.
“The campaign violates people’s right to choose a religion and how they decide to address their health especially when it comes to their children. There’s a whole debate around parenting and religious choices on children,” said Ms. Chirenje.
She said religion has, however, over the years been used as a tool for oppressing women and the move by the ACCZ is mostly important in curbing child marriages.
“This will support in the movement to end child marriages in that those perpetrators who found comfort in religion can now be apprehended and brought to account which is a most welcome development as religion has since time immemorial been used as a tool for oppressing women and children.”
Ms Chirenje said open conversations about the causes and effects of sexual abuse and child marriages were important in helping end the scourge.
“Imposing stiffer penalties on perpetrators will also be useful. Patriarchy is the notion that men are superior to women and until this is done away with by a transformation in attitude and behaviour, abuse will remain eminent,” she said.
Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa who also oversees the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs said:
“We’re making concerted efforts to ensure that child marriages are banned. Our girls should marry when they attain the age of 18. That would be supported by laws that we’re currently working on and the process is ongoing.”
There are proposals to amend the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act, such that the age of consent becomes 18 years since sexual relations are usually a precursor to marriages.
Other amendments include the notification of heads in rural areas or magistrates in urban areas of the parties that want to wed so that they can scrutinise their personal details before the marriages have been solemnised.
Also, proof of age of the party concerned should be made available before a marriage is solemnised such that marriage officers will not solemnise marriages for girls who are below 18 years.
Lawyer and Harare West legislator Ms Jessie Majome said the decision to draft the amendments was born out of the need to ensure inclusivity from all stakeholders advocating an end to child marriages.
“We’re deeply concerned that the practices of child, early and forced marriages are widespread and constitute violations of human rights and prevent individuals from living their lives from all forms of violence that have adverse consequences on the enjoyment of human rights. By embarking on this exercise, we want to ensure that the problem of child marriages is eradicated. Saving our girls from child marriages will set women on the path of development,” said Ms Majome. – @Yolisswa
Archbishop Johannes Ndanga