Govt drags feet on child marriage law

HARARE - Government is still to formally amend the law to outlaw child marriages, three years after a landmark Constitutional Court ruling that banned the marriage of girls under the age of 18 years.

The ruling came after an application by two women — Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi — who were aged 19 and 18 respectively at the time they filed the application.

The girls challenged the constitutionality of Section 22 of the Marriages Act, which they said infringed on a girl-child’s right to equality.

Tendai Biti, a Harare lawyer who represented the girls, told the Daily News on Sunday this week that the planned amendments to outlaw child marriages were being politicised by the ruling Zanu PF party, which has a majority in the National Assembly.

“Zanu PF is always Zanu PF. That judgment was handed down on January 20, 2016 to be precise, so it’s a total disaster that three years after that judgment the government has not formally amended the law to outlaw child marriages and the reason is very political and Zanu (Zanu PF) always do things for political reasons.

“They did not want to offend members of the apostolic sect, many of whom still practice child marriage. It’s political and it’s unacceptable. So these people are a disaster,” Biti said.

He added, “They have threatened to come up with a law but they have also been threatening before. I remember the then minister of Women’s Affairs Nyasha Chikwinya promising that a law will be in effect within six months, but it’s now three years, so they are not serious. In their State-of-the-Nation Address, they said they are going to come up with a law to proscribe child marriages but I don’t think they will do that”.

In their application, the women had argued that the legitimate age of marriage in Zimbabwe should be 18, adding that it was clear that the legal age of marriage for men was 18, while that for women was 16.

Some girls in Zimbabwe are forced into early marriages due to economic hardships, religious, customary and cultural practices.

Most enter into marriages after dropping out of school and find solace in marriage.

Other children are given away by their parents to appease avenging spirits or for personal gains.

But the Constitutional Court said this was illegal.

“It is declared that Section 78 (1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Zimbabwe Amendment (number 20) 2013, sets 18 years as the minimum age of marriage in Zimbabwe.

“It is further declared that Section 22 (1) of the Marriage Act (Chapter 5:11) or any law, practice or custom authorising a person under 18 years of age to marry or to be married is inconsistent with provisions of Section 78 (1) of the Constitution and therefore invalid to the extent of the inconsistency. The law is hereby struck down,” the full Constitutional Court bench ruled three years ago.

Even though the Zanu PF government has been expressing interest in amending the law, nothing meaningful has been done on the ground.

Only three weeks ago, Zanu PF Mashonaland Central senator Alice Chimbudzi asked Justice minister Ziyambi Ziyambi to explain the measures that have been put in place by the government to curb child marriages.

“Following the Constitutional Court ruling that any marriage involving persons under this age is null and void, it is beyond contention that such marriages are illegal. The process of aligning legislation to the Constitution is ongoing and the majority of the Acts are at an advanced or completion stage. Some of the statutes being aligned namely, the Marriages Act, Customary Marriages Act and the Children’s Act are meant, in part, to deal decisively with the issues of the prohibition of child marriages.

“Much of the issues relating to the prohibition of child marriages and similar vices are being taken care of by the ongoing alignment process, and I am confident that this will put to rest this matter.

“May I reiterate that government is committed towards ensuring that the rights of children, including their right not to be given up for marriage or marry before they reach the age of 18, are promoted, respected and fulfilled. Such a process involves stakeholder consultations to ensure that the relevant laws reflect this commitment,” Ziyambi said.

Veritas — an organisation that gives information on the work of courts and Parliament — said child marriages are both a symptom of poverty and a conduit through which it is perpetuated, as some families that struggle to provide for their children view early marriages as a way out of their difficulties.

“However, girls who are married early are deprived of the opportunity to further their education which is an essential tool in changing one’s economic status.

“While the judgment made it illegal for a minor — i.e. a person under the age of 18 — to enter into marriage, we have yet to see a requisite response from Parliament in the form of an amendment to Section 22 (1) of the Marriage Act, which still sets the minimum age for girls to marry at 16 years and even younger with ministerial approval. There is an urgent need to amend Section 22 to prevent girls from having their education cut short through marriage,” the organisation said.

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