Bulawayo residents have welcomed the new Marriage Act as a progressive piece of legislation taking Zimbabwe to another stage in matrimonial affairs while enhancing gender equality and protecting children’s rights.
The new legislation was signed into law by President Emmerson Mnangagwa last Friday.
According to the new law, all types of marriages whether civil or customary are now treated the same with a single register maintained by the Registrar of Marriages.
Payment of lobola is not necessarily binding on civil marriages and other customary marriages while chiefs can now solemnise marriages the same way pastors and magistrates do.
All customary marriages, which are very common in Zimbabwe, now have to be registered within three months if the couple does not wish to have them solemnised by a chief or magistrate
Property acquired during a civil partnership (omasihlalisane), according to the Act, is shared equally in the event of a divorce.
In all marriages, both partners should be aged 18 or over while both fathers and mothers now have equal rights to children during and after the dissolution of the marriage. Moreover, a monogamous couple in a customary marriage can convert their marriage into a civil one if they so wish.
“The new Marriage Act is progressive in nature,” said Effie Ncube, a social analyst. “While would have expected even more progression towards a liberal institution it is quite a departure from the divided marriages legislation that existed before. It also is an improvement in the sense that it gives people an advantage to just walk to the neighbouring chief who is located in their area and solemnise their marriages.”
He said people had been forced to travel long distances to have their marriages registered.
“Another important thing is that the customary marriage will now be registered quite quickly compared with what used to happen before,” said Ncube.
“Omasihlalisane who used to be just taken as property in the house even if they were mothers and wives will now share equally in the event of a divorce. That is a significant progression. It will reduce the violation of women’s rights. Now men will know that if you take umasihlalisane it will have consequences in the event of a divorce unlike in the past where they would say ‘ alright, that’s fine, just go’ without anything. It is also important to note that the age of marriage is now 18 and over. This will contribute to the reduction in child marriages that have killed so many children and destroyed their future.“
Busi Bhebhe of Amakhosikazi Media said the changes factor various cultural contexts of the institution of marriage.
“These changes are very progressive and need to be applauded but only if implemented fully and considering our varying cultural contexts,” she said.
“Now that 18 year olds can marry (not needing the consent of adults through exchange of lobola) we hope there will be no conflicts between parents disowning their daughters for wanting to marry without payment of lobola. I also hope we will not hear of an upsurge in gender-based violence (GBV) because girls at 18 would have married off without the blessing of parents leading to them being afraid to leave abusive relationships.”
The act, Bhebhe said, protects women in civil partnerships who in the past have been short-changed after getting into unregistered unions, setting up homes, and in the end losing out when relationships end with men claiming all the property.
“Men have also gained in that they now have equal rights to their children which was not the case before,” elaborated Bhebhe.
“In the past, the mothers had the unfair advantage of having the children more than their fathers. In this case, also cases of abuse will have to be closely monitored.
She however expressed reservations about the involvement of chiefs in marital affairs.
“I’m not sure about a patriarchal and culturally based chieftaincy system handling marriages,” she said.
“It looks good at face value but we will wait to see upon application if chiefs will be able to apply the law equally in unions they have solemnised. Say in the case of a divorce, we hope chiefs will be trained and able to apply fairness of civil law with regards sharing of property and access to children not to impose old traditional laws in such cases.”
Nozibusiso Sivalo also welcomed the new law as progressive.
“Some of the changes to the Marriage Act are very good considering that chiefs are now allowed to solemnise marriages,” she said.
“This will cut on costs for people looking for marriage officers as they are no longer restricted to pastors and magistrates. The fact that customary marriages can be converted into civil marriages is also good because people have been incurring expenses but now no one has to part with money for that.”
However, Mkhululi Tshuma said although some provisions of the Act were progressive like allowing only those over 18 years into marriages, provisions like the recognition of civil partnerships would be problematic.
“The act has now given small houses a form of recognition,” he said.
“Many families may be affected by that provision. The scrapping of lobola in civil marriages is another challenge. It trivializes the marriage institution and will likely lead to fights within the family institutions.”
He added: “Imagine someone marrying your daughter without your consent or knowledge at all! It means two young people can drag each other to the magistrate, and get married and you as a parent cannot do anything to stop them. What kind of a relationship will come out of that? There will likely be an increase in the resentment of the son-in-law.”
Mthulisi Ncube also expressed reservations about some provisions of the Act.
“This law I don’t think is for us black people because it does away with our beliefs, looking at the marriage institution,” he said.
“When a man marries a woman the man is the one in charge because he goes to the wife’s family to request for marriage, the woman then becomes his wife. The wife then adopts the husband’s surname and the children become his by virtue of the surname.”
He explained further: “When the new law now says both a husband and wife have equal rights to children it then boggles the mind whose surname is going to be adopted by children since we are now equal. Who is now going to look after the children since we are now equals?”