Zimbabwe is among countries in Sub-Saharan Africa with good statutory instruments to combat early marriages, sexual exploitation and abuse of young women.
In 2013 Zimbabwe was celebrated for having a constitution with a comprehensive Bill of Rights in the region.
In 2022, Zimbabwe witnessed the promulgation and subsequent enactment of the new Marriages Act. One of the salient features of the Marriages Act is guarding against sexual exploitation of young women in Zimbabwe.
In May 2022, the apex court of the land, Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe, handed down a historic judgment in the case of Kawenda v Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs and Others.
The court held that 16 years as age of consent was unconstitutional and ordered the legislature to comply with its ruling by enacting a legal provision which gives effect to section 81 of the Constitution, which clearly states that a child is a boy or girl who is under the age of 18 years.
The mischief of this judgment was to guard and insulate young people against sexual predators, a now common trend bedevilling Zimbabwean society.
Section 245 of the Constitution created the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, and one of its mandates is to investigate violations relating to gender, of which sexual exploitation of young women remains a very big challenge confronting Zimbabwe.
The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission and the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community and Small and Medium Enterprises Development are some of institutions trying to fight flagrant human rights abuse including child sexual exploitation.
Section 19(1) of the Constitution further states that the state must adopt policies and measures to ensure that in matters relating to children, the best interest of the children concerned are paramount.
The crux of this constitutional provision is the best interest of the child principle, which I will not extensively dwell on. It’s a great discussion for another day. However, what is critical is that this constitutional provision makes it clear that young people should be protected unreservedly in Zimbabwe.
However, the irony is that despite all these hosts of statutory enactments, Zimbabwe remains one of the countries in the SADC region recording high cases of teen pregnancy, early marriages and sexual exploitation of young people.
This sad development leads to many asking the question why sexual exploitation, teenage pregnancy and early marriages are rampant in a country with all hosts of laws and state institutions?
Are current legal provisions enough in curtailing child sexual exploitation in Zimbabwe? Is there real political will in fighting sexual exploitation of young people in Zimbabwe?
For a long period of time, I have nticed that Zimbabwe is becoming a country with an insatiable desire to react to every problem with legislation. Not all problems require legal redress. My argument is not to discredit enactment of laws in fighting teenage pregnancy and early marriages. What is now happening is that organs of the State are now trying to respond to problems such as teen pregnancy using the cold and clinical legal means without investing and giving more attention to the social dimension of justice.
The discourse of early marriages and teen pregnancy is beyond the legal framework, it’s more of a societal problem which is now being worsened by high levels of poverty and inequality.
Globally, the data from World Vision revealed that over 650 million women who are alive to date were married before their 18th birthday. It further provides that globally over 20% girls are married in childhood, which translates to 12 million girls being married before 18 years, to put this into perspective 22 girls below the age of 18 are being married every minute. This number is too much.
What is shocking from these statistics is that the majority of child brides are coming from poverty stricken communities. They are from developing countries such as Zimbabwe.
World Vision further states that research conducted is showing that girls with no education are more likely to be married before 18 years than girls who attend secondary or tertiary education.
The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency July 2022 Poverty Datum Lines showed that Zimbabwe’s Total Consumption Poverty line was at ZW$23 479 per person. That figure is a total salary for some families especially for those working in rural areas and some dormitory towns such as Chitungwiza, Hopley, Mbare and Goromonzi.
Research by the International Multidisciplinary Research Journal of 2012, titled “Factors underlying early sexual initiation among adolescence: A case study of Mbare, District, Harare, Zimbabwe, pointed out that poverty and need of material possession among adolescence girls are major contributory factors to early sexual debut among adolescence in Mbare.
The studies by UNFPA in 2003 and UNICEF in 2001 revealed that that poverty is increasing risks of early sexual debut and sex work in Zimbabwe.
In some marginalised districts in Zimbabwe, primary school children walk almost 20 kilometres to and from schools, a situation which is fuelling school dropouts in the country.
After these children drop out from schools the next thing is likely to be sexual 02exploitation or early marriage. This is one of the reasons why we are having some teen mothers in most rural settings around the country.
Majority of rural people and those in peri-urban areas of Zimbabwe are families which are struggling economically, they are people living in abject poverty. Mashonaland Central is one of the provinces recording high cases of early marriages in Zimbabwe. In such areas, families and adolescent girls use marriage as simple tools and mechanism to get out of their desperate economic situations.
A 2022 study conducted by Plan International in Chiredzi District of Masvingo Province, title, “Understanding Child Marriage in food-insecure communities in Chiredzi District, Zimbabwe” revealed that adolescence girls are being forced into sexual exploitation in the context of selling or exchanging sex to put food on the table.
As a country it’s now time for Zimbabwe to start investing in social infrastructure, cushioning marginalised communities against the vagaries of poverty and inequality. This is a comprehensive panacea to early marriages, teenage pregnancy and social exploitation ravaging our beloved country.
Zororai Nkomo is a Zimbabwean journalist, Lawyer and social justice advocate, he writes in his own personal capacity. He can be contacted on email@example.com