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Child Marriage is not a Revenue Stream

Opinion

Child Marriage is not a Revenue Stream

When I was in primary school, I knew a 12-year-old apostolic girl whose family collected her from school to conclude a marriage with an old man.

David Ngwerume’s piece inspired by the story of the 14 year old child bride Memory Machaya

Child marriage is the elephant in the room, but with 1 in 3 Zimbabwean girls being married before 18 years, it’s become the Hwange Wildlife Park in the room. The elephant trumpeted when Memory Machaya, a 14-year-old girl forced to leave school in Mhondoro to marry Evans Momberume, died in childbirth on July 15 at the Johanne Marange apostolic (mapostori) shrine, inciting #JusticeForMemory. Elderly women at the shrine “treated” her by smearing salt inside her mouth and pouring paraffin into her nose. Memory’s 9-year-old sister was allegedly pledged to Momberume as his replacement wife according to the chigadzamapfihwa tradition.

One in three girls are married before 18 years.

Shock towards this statistic shows we must rename Zimbabwe as Dozen. Dozen care about rural girls’ suffering. Dozen report when they see their congregants force girls into marriage. Dozen raise awareness because it doesn’t affect us. Dozen have intersectional feminism with an active and substantive cause against child marriage in rural areas. Dozen have a government and police officers who do their job. How can we know a girl in the neighbourhood/village was married off, but we shrug that it’s a family matter that’s none of our business? IT IS YOUR BUSINESS. IT IS OUR BUSINESS. And our carpet is getting lumpy with the number of cases we’ve swept under it.

Child marriage usually happens because families need the financial gain from the husband’s lobola, so some people say we shouldn’t judge families using child marriage as their last option, because the daughters “consent” anyway. Letting old men marry girls for money instead of, I don’t know, providing poor families with social security and equipping them to make income, seems like a roundabout way of ending poverty. Providing is the parents’ job, not their nine-year-old daughter’s. Secondly, minors cannot consent (read my blog post on Zimbabwe’s paedophile culture here) and marriage before 18 is illegal.

Say it with me: girls are not financial plans for families.

In 2016 the Constitutional Court ruled child marriage unconstitutional, yet Parliament still hasn’t adopted the Marriage Bill which makes child marriage a criminal offence warranting prosecution of participants. I was told about a 16-year-old girl raped by an elderly man; when reporting to the police, they proposed he just marry her, and her family agreed. When I was in primary school, I knew a 12-year-old apostolic girl whose family collected her from school to conclude a marriage with an old man. We were shocked, but my teacher shrugged it off as a private customary concern peculiar to amapostori so we must leave them be.

Does the food we eat skip our stomach and go straight to our ignorance?

Apparently, we must respect culture, but culture doesn’t make people, people make culture. Culture is a living thing which evolves according to the needs of the community, and when a custom harms vulnerable people, it must be abolished. Female genital mutilation—cutting off girls’ clitorises, stitching up their vaginas and other variants—was part of culture but we’ve realised that the barbaric tradition merely controls female sexuality hence communal activism against it.

Part of the problem is girls being sexualised from childhood. I was first catcalled by men commenting on my thighs when I was 9; often little girls feel insecure when men don’t catcall them because sexualisation is the medal we are groomed to crave. In Ndebele culture, girls’ breasts are swept with umthanyelo (grass broom) to stop them growing because they’re “too young” for their boobs to grow; what this really means is you are a child but men will sexualise your body so we must restrain it. When our breasts grow, we’re told to push them inwards to prevent them facing east and west because men prefer them that way—like our bodies are a product our hypothetical suitors must approve of.

Before puberty strikes, Ndebele girls are told to pull their labia minora until they resemble slippers because their husbands want that during sex—yet men aren’t told to tie their penises into a bowtie or some weird custom because their future wives want it—this not only sexualises girls’ bodies, it plants the seed that girls are created to marry and serve their husbands. Learn to cook and clean because your husband will expect it, but your brother can relax, because girls are groomed for marriage from childhood while boys can live their lives at their own pace. Boys will be boys, but girls will be women. So, is child marriage really a surprise when we lay the bricks for its road?

How can we normalise men complimenting young girls by saying they’ll marry them when they’re older then get shocked at child marriage, yet we normalised objectifying young girls for marriage? How can we tell girls they mustn’t date while telling them to alter their bodies for sex with their future husbands? How can we slut-shame adult women dating old men for money, yet we condone auctioning off our daughters to old men for money? How can men jerk off with one hand to under aged girls while pointing at “sexually immoral” girls and women with the other? I just sneezed, because I’m allergic to moral double standards.

And this is why during winter my best friend Rorisang Moyo said, “this weather is a man, vele, a Zimbabwean man.
Privilege is when we’re apathetic towards an issue because it doesn’t affect us personally. In urban areas we may have outgrown these customs, but girls and women in rural areas still suffer under the village’s Premium Subscription to patriarchy with a monthly fee of their freedom and dignity. Memory should’ve been allowed to safely abort her pregnancy because under aged girls are forced to carry their pregnancies to term as minors, yet a teenager saying they want to adopt a child would be denied that because she’s too young to be a mother; why is a pregnant girl suddenly old enough for motherhood? Momberume’s demand for an heir trumped her right to safety and bodily autonomy, ultimately murdering her. In rural areas, it’s common for women/girls to be forced to marry their rapists after the rapist pays damages to the family, because of course she would LOVE to relive her trauma with her abuser for the rest of her life as long as her family gets cows.

Women/girls are constantly society’s sacrificial lambs, as though suffering and commodification for everyone’s good is our job. When a woman is abused by her husband or he cheats, she’s told to return and fix the marriage because her family doesn’t want him to reclaim the lobola. The strong black woman/girl narrative needs to end. Portraying girls and women as superhumans who must put up with oppression must stop. People say wathint’abafazi, wathint’imbokodo (you strike a woman, you strike a rock) yet really, you strike us, you strike an egg which will crack and bleed. Last time I checked, we are not part of the Matobo Hills rock formations (I didn’t know rocks were part of the gender spectrum), we are humans with feelings. Girls are soft as wool and must be treated as such. And maybe we don’t need to be protected, we need men, families and churches benefiting from and participating in oppressive practices to stop protecting each other. I repeat:

We can do better. We must do better. When we hear or see something, let’s report to the police. If they’re not doing their job, report to their superiors (it worked for me when I faced street harassment and the perpetrators were fined). If that doesn’t work, make noise on social media and call out said participants, complicit police and judicial officers by name until the department is forced to take action. This is the only time I will approve of being a Karen; wear a blonde asymmetrical wig and say to yourself, “I’d like to speak to the manager!” twice a day if you must. Get snitching inspiration from your little siblings and Candice from Phineas and Ferb.

Solutions:

  • A legal provision for registering ALL marriages including informal ones to facilitate monitoring child marriages and enforcing existing child protection legal instruments.
  • More investigative journalism because child marriage is under-reported.
  • Social security to help poor people financially, decreasing child marriage and prostitution for money.
  • Free education/exam fees for all girls so they pursue education not marriage, including survival skills like market-gardening, sewing for financial independence if they drop out.
  • Involving males in anti-child marriage programs which alert girls of their rights, are monitored, evaluated, include evidence and research, with sufficient funding (source).

Elephants are for wildlife parks, not for the room where everyone is silent about child marriage. Anyway, here are my feminist paintings on female oppression, objectification, and commodification:

 

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When I'm not smashing the patriarchy, I debate, paint, and work on my YA African feminist fantasy novel on Wattpad--which I guess is also smashing the patriarchy. Currently stu(dying) BA Law at University of Pretoria. I may or may not be a mermaid masquerading as a human. Pro-LGBTQ+. I'm just out here not hearing problematic people over the volume of my Afro.

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