Imagine yourself in a dark box, you can’t find space, there is no light, no sound except that of your breathing. Enough air you can breathe but not enough you can breathe freely. You feel trapped, suffocated and helpless. Now imagine you are going to be in that box forever. That is what child marriage feels like.
Lucy was a girl aged 14 who lived in one of the rural areas in Zimbabwe. She was so brilliant to the extent that her teachers were so proud of her. She always took the first position in her class from grade one to grade seven. She enjoyed learning but it came with its own challenges since sometimes she used to miss classes because sometimes her parents could not afford to pay her school fees in time. She always dreamt of becoming a human rights lawyer when she grows up and nothing was going to stop her because of her sharp mind.
As a kid, she enjoyed playing games such as hide and seek, pada and nhodo. One day as she was enjoying pada with her friends her mother called her and told her that they were no longer able to pay school fees for two people that is Lucy and her older brother and she was forced to drop out from school. She was not given the same opportunity as that of her brother yet education is every child’s right whether a boy or a girl, as Malala Yousafzai an Indian education activist said, “Education is education, it is neither Eastern nor Western but it is human.” Education itself is very important irrespective of whether the child is a boy or a girl. Just because she was a girl she was denied her right to education and her parents thought that education would not save her any purpose. Her dreams of becoming a great human rights lawyer were shattered, she could not make her own life decisions (she was in a dark box). Imagine because of her brilliants, if she was given the same opportunities which are given to other children she was going to be one of the prominent female human rights lawyers of the next generation.
While she was still confused and crying, her father came in and told her that he had fixed her marriage. She was getting married the following day. She was still 14, her age was to roam around on her father’s shoulders. Household responsibilities were put on her delicate and innocent shoulders. She was still a kid; she did not even know the meaning of marriage. She cried and tried to escape but to no avail. She even thought of reporting the father to the police but she was afraid of dishonoring the family. She had dreamt of going to school and moving ahead but her parents put her life in a dark box by forcefully got her married on her childhood. The husband was old enough to be her father; she faced domestic violence and sexual abuse.
Sometimes later, she became a widow. The husband died because of HIV and AIDS. There was no magic button about it, Lucy was also HIV positive. Not only the society but her own parents rejected her. She faced stigmatization. The father even said, “We never thought you would prove yourself to be cursed. We did so much for your marriage so that you can get married to a boy who was the owner of a shop but your fate killed him.” She was blamed for what she did not know. It was calamity after calamity. She was in a dark box, nowhere to go (her dreams were shattered), no one to tell her problems (even the parents denied her) because no one was willing to listen to her.
This story did not only happen to Lucy but it is still happening to many girls in Zimbabwe. Child marriage is prevailing in some communities in Zimbabwe. Child marriage is defined as a marriage of a girl or boy before the age of 18. So many girls are being deprived their rights like Lucy and one of them being education. Gender gaps tend to grow especially the education trajectory as statistics show that more girls are dropping out of school at their adolescent’s stage since they will be forced to marry at a tender age as compared to boys globally and the biggest number being in Africa. This is because some communities are still regarding girls’ education as not important and as a waste of resources. However, education is the key factor for girls’ empowerment, prosperity, development and welfare. When girls are educated they are part of the resources of the country, they also help to contribute to the economy and the advantages are many. It is good to keep reminding our society, leaders and politicians, that this is not just to educate an individual girl but it is also a long-term benefit to society. If Lucy’s parents did not put her life in a dark box and deprived her education right, she was going to achieve her dreams and become one of the influential human rights lawyers in Zimbabwe. If we educate the girls today, we are going to have more female leaders, engineers and doctors of tomorrow hence more development to our country.
Also religion and customs beliefs are acting as vehicles to early and forced marriages in some communities. Early marriage is a community-driven phenomenon because it depends on social expectations formed in close networks who believe they ought to conform (Bicchieri, Jiang and Lindemans, 2014). This leads to social pressure in communities with high prevalence of early marriage where failure to conform can result in disapproval for the family. We have communities in Zimbabwe where people are so strict in adhering to their norms, beliefs and region. Some communities simply consider marriage as the next phase of womanhood, following menstruation and female genital mutilation which usually happens before the age of 15. Also, we still have churches in Zimbabwe who believe that girls should not pass a certain age without getting married. The parents and church leaders usually arrange the marriage without the girl knowing like what Lucy’s father did, for example a grade seven girl of Matara village in Murehwa who was forced to marry a fifty-one old polygamist with seven other women. They violate girls’ rights by forcing them to marry early without knowing they are abusing girls’ rights because it is approved in their beliefs and religion. In those circumstances, child marriage is seen as something proper and accepted yet we are putting the girl child in a dark box.
Poverty is also another key driver of child marriage. Research shows there is high rate of child marriage cases in poverty stricken areas. Families are using child marriage as an alternative or a survival strategy against food insecurity. Girls are being used as objects for trade. For example, after the Tokwe Mukosi flood disaster, they are cases whereby parents were exchanging one girl for one bucket of maize. Also in Muzarabani some parents were exchanging a girl child for a goat. On top of that families who cannot afford to feed or educate their daughters may view marriage as her best option yet they will be violating her rights and shattering her future by putting the girl child in a dark box.
How to break the dark box?
We have to empower girls to be their agents of change by providing them with equal access to quality education and allowing them to complete their studies which will enable them to support themselves and lead fulfilled independent lives. Girls who are educated have a greater awareness of their rights; they are more likely to stand up for themselves in male dominated cultures and to advocate for themselves. An educated girl is capable of making her own decisions; she has confidence and freedom to make decisions that affect her life.
The success of a girl-child is determined by her full access to all her rights. Our law makers have to inculcate rights that are awarded to the girl child and what can be done if such rights are violated, procedures to be taken and provide the support of putting to book those who violate such rights. We also have to ensure that the girl-child knows her rights for her self-protection since Zimbabwean girls especially in rural areas tend to have their rights violated because they are not aware that they have laws and acts that protect them. Girls in different communities should be aware of their rights that are available to them and take charge of their destinies. Furthermore, awareness should be given to societies about girl child rights and avenues that help support the voice of the girl child. Also creating safe spaces and channels for girls to speak up for what they want and speak out against harmful practices will allow their voices to be heard
Also we should raise our sons and daughters differently, focusing more on ability rather than gender and also focusing more on interest rather than gender. Also when raising our daughters, we should also teach them that gender should not stop them to achieve anything in life so they should also aim to be successful but not only aspiring to marriage.
In conclusion, child marriage is a harmful practice which affects and disturbs the future development of the girl child. When we marry them early, we are putting them in a dark box with no light and freedom. Child marriage should not be considered a women’s thing but it needs women, man, boys and girls to stand up together and fight against it.