HARARE, Zimbabwe — In 2014, two Zimbabwean child brides, Ruvimbo Tsopodzi and Loveness Mudzuru, sued the Constitutional Court for failing to protect girls from child marriage. The court challenge lasted nearly two years, but ultimately ended positively. In January of this year, the Constitutional Court ruled that boys and girls under the age of 18 cannot enter into “unregistered, customary or religious” unions, effective immediately.
Zimbabwe’s former Marriage Act allowed girls to be married at the age of 16, while boys could not marry until 18.
Early arranged marriage is practiced in many countries. A recent UNICEF report said an estimated 125 million girls are child brides in Africa and that number is expected to rise to 310 million by 2050 with girls married to pay off family debt or for traditional reasons, according to a Reuters article.
Child marriage in Zimbabwe is a deeply-entrenched tradition. Girls Not Brides reports that as much as 31 percent of Zimbabwean women get married before their 18th birthday, and four percent marry before reaching 15 years of age. Marrying off a young girl significantly diminishes her chances of completing her education, exposes her to a higher likelihood of domestic violence and increases risk of pregnancy complications.
“Raising a child when you are a child yourself is excruciating and painful,” Mudzuru told Farai Mutsaka of AP.
“When you are able to have these kinds of laws, that means that the social understanding, the big attitude around the issue is shifting,” Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Chief of Child Protection, told the New York Times.
Despite the court’s ruling, Zimbabwe will have its hands full enforcing the new law. Many marriages are conducted illegally and in secret. Some are unions, rather than official marriages, to improve a family’s financial situation or preserve honor.
However, many anti-child marriage campaigns have gained popularity within and outside of Africa. “Give us books, not husbands” and “Not Ripe for Marriage” are reaching out to communities prone to marrying off their young daughters in an attempt to end child marriage.
Though ending child marriage in Zimbabwe will be a long and arduous effort, the support from the Constitutional Court signifies a strong shift in traditional culture. “It is a great day for women and the girl child,” Tendai Biti, the lawyer of Tsopodzi and Mudzuru, told AP.