Hunger forces Zim girls into forced marriages

Tariro Muchina was barely in her teens late last year when her father “sold” her off into an arranged marriage in the small-scale farming district of Nyamajura, about 250km east of the Zimbabwean capital, Harare.

Twelve months down the line, the 14-year-old Muchina, who was literally dragged screaming all the way into “marriage”, appears to have come to terms with her fate.

“I had to leave school to marry this man despite his age ... My father insisted that I do it to save my younger brothers and sisters from hunger,” Muchina says, opening up only after much persuasion.

Muchina is married to a balding and pot-bellied 65-year-old man who has some teeth missing but owns a grocery shop—an immensely important factor in this hunger- and poverty-stricken community.

Showing surprisingly little bitterness for someone robbed of her youth in so cruel a manner, Muchina sums up her story in just a few sentences.

She says: “I would have preferred to continue with school. But we are poor and there was no money for food or anything at home. Although it [the marriage] was arranged for me, I had to agree to it. That is the only way my family could survive. In turn, my husband provides food for them.”

Faced with starvation after six years of poor harvests, Zimbabweans are resorting to centuries-old traditions of “forced marriages”, known in the local Shona language as “kuzvarira”, for survival.

The practice, which involves a father giving away his usually under-age daughter (without her consent) to a richer man in return for food and other economic support, had died over the past 100 years.

But some hungry families from rural communities, far removed from the glare of human rights groups and the media, are reviving the old custom out of desperation to survive an unprecedented economic and food crisis, which critics blame as much on poor weather as on mismanagement by President Robert Mugabe’s government.

Zimbabwe is in its sixth year of a punishing economic recession described by the World Bank as unseen in a country not at war. Food is in short supply, while the little that is available in shops is priced beyond the reach of the poor due to a rampant inflation now beyond 1 000%, according to figurers released last week.

With the economy seen worsening over Mugabe’s controversial policies that started with the arbitrary seizure in 2000 of white-owned commercial farms, observers and social scientists say the old scourges—child labour, child prostitution and forced marriages—will rise.

“We are seeing an increase in forced and illegal marriages of poor young girls to rich old men over the past few years. This is a centuries-old tradition, which we had long forgotten,” a former University of Zimbabwe vice-chancellor and a leading social scientist, Gordon Chavhunduka, says.

He adds: “Such traditions where poor families marry off their under-age daughters to rich old men were rife before colonialism hundreds of years back. They died after colonialism. But they have now been revived in the battle for survival.”

A village elder in Nyamajura, Kennias Mutuni, says cases like that of Muchina are being reported with increasing frequency in the area because of poverty. But in a very worrying sign, the village elder sees little wrong with the old custom as long as the bride price is paid.

“As long as the bride price is paid, that is fine with us. People want to survive and daughters, especially young and well-behaved ones, can be an avenue out of starvation,” says Mutuni.

And, rather cynically, he adds: “It is a legitimate way of forging relations between the rich and the poor so that they can take care of each other. It’s better than losing the girls to prostitution.”

But the effects of forced marriages are already being felt, with Zimbabwe Progressive Teachers’ Union secretary general Raymond Majongwe saying there has been an increase, especially in rural areas, in the number of under-age girls dropping out of school after being forced to marry.

“Girls are getting married at 13, because of coercion by desperate family members in a bid to escape poverty. This government owes the nation an explanation on this lost generation. Our children no longer have a future,” says Majongwe.

Although there are efforts—including some by the government—to stop forced marriages, Eunice Chipfatsura, a pastor with a local Pentecostal church in Nyamajura, says there are no easy solutions to the problem, not least because community leaders, who are invariably men, still believe the males have a right to determine the future of female members of a family.

Chipfatsura says: “It is difficult to make any headway. When we try to talk to the community leaders or even the children, they don’t understand us. We were chased away in one village after encouraging the girl children to report such cases to the police.

“We have an uphill task because as the economy gets worse, the abuse of young girls sold like commodities will get worse as well. We need to get the message to the children, that it is abuse of their rights and they can report it.”

But for Muchina and probably many like her, the concern is not about human rights and dignity. It is, as the cliché goes, about bread-and-butter issues.

“If I report to the police, will that bring food to my family?” she asks when told about the church pastor’s advice that young girls like her should not accept being forced to marry men old enough to be their fathers but should instead inform the police.—ZimOnline

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