By Opal Masocha Sibanda
The Day of the African Child (DAC) which was initiated by the OAU is celebrated on the 16th of June every year. The DAC is significant as it honours the 1976 student-led uprising in Soweto, South Africa that resulted in the killing of a number of unarmed students and young protesters by the apartheid regime.
The DAC is an occasion to reflect and deliberate on the situation of children’s rights in Africa, the progress made, and the challenges faced.
This year, the DAC is commemorated under the theme: ‘Eliminating Harmful Practices Affecting Children: Progress on Policy and Practice since 2013.’ The theme is important as it marks almost a decade since the 2013 theme of the same focus entitled “Eliminating harmful social and cultural practices affecting children: Our collective responsibility.” The theme presents an opportunity for AU Member States to evaluate what has been done over the last decade and what ought to be done to eliminate all harmful practices and ensure that every child is protected from such practices.
This piece assesses the progress made in Zimbabwe in eliminating harmful practices affecting children, particularly child marriages which are the most prevalent form of harmful practice in Zimbabwe, as well as the gaps that exist. Recommendations are given at the end.
Zimbabwe ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child which provides for the protection of children from harmful social and cultural practices in its article 21. Specifically, article 21(2) of the African Children’s Charter prohibits child marriage and calls upon Member States to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years. Zimbabwe has also ratified the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) which calls upon States to set the minimum age of marriage at 18 years. As part of compliance with international human rights standards on children’s rights, the government of Zimbabwe has the responsibility to ensure the protection of children from child marriages and other harmful practices. This calls for the adoption of legislative or other measures as may be necessary to give effect of the provisions of these instruments.
Notably, the government of Zimbabwe has made progress in adopting laws and policies that protect children from child marriage. To begin with, section 26(1) (b) of the Constitution provides that the state must take appropriate measures to ensure that children are not pledged in marriage. Further, section 78 provides that every person who has attained the age of 18 years has a right to found a family. As such, children, as individuals below the age of 18 years cannot be married. In addition, the provisions of the Domestic Violence Act define child marriages as a form of domestic violence that constitutes an offence. Further, notably, child marriages were declared unconstitutional by the Constitutional Court in the case of Mudzuru & Another v Ministry of Justice, Legal & Parliamentary Affairs N.O & Others in 2016.
It is also important to note that the new Marriages Act criminalizes child marriage. This is laudable as the Marriages Act has been aligned with the Constitution of Zimbabwe and the provisions of the African Children’s Charter which prohibits child marriages. It is noted that the government has also taken other initiatives in ending child marriage such as the adoption of the National Action Plan and Communication Strategy (2019-2021) on Ending Child Marriages and the adoption of the National Disability Policy (2021) which provides inter alia for the protection of children with disabilities from child marriages.
Whilst noting the progress made in protecting children from child marriage, particularly in the form of legislative and policy reform, it is important to highlight that implementation of the law remains a challenge as the practice of child marriages still persists and victims are not adequately remedied. The Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency indicates that 1 in 3 girls in Zimbabwe are married before 18, whilst only 2% of boys get married before they turn 18 years.
The sad case of the late Anna Machaya who died in labour in 2021 after being married to an adult who was about 15 years older than her is also an indication that there is still a need for the government to ensure that the laws that are put in place to protect children are effectively implemented, for the best interests of children. It should be borne in mind that child marriages are highly likely to affect the enjoyment of various other rights such as non-discrimination, health and education. As stated by Viljoen in his book ‘International Human Rights Law in Africa’, ‘marriage, especially when it is assumed to be followed by childbirth, is a denial of the essence of childhood.’
In eliminating child marriages, in line with Aspiration 7 of Africa’s Agenda for Children 2040 which calls for the elimination of harmful practices including child marriage by 2040, the government of Zimbabwe is urged to:
- Embark on public information and awareness campaigns on the laws prohibiting harmful practices (child marriages) and initiate collective discussions involving communities;
- Undertake capacity building of professionals working with and for children on addressing child marriages and other harmful practices affecting children;
- Strengthen collaboration with traditional and religious leaders and build upon their influential voice to enhance awareness among communities about the dangers of child marriages and other harmful practices affecting children; and
- Put in place quality programmes and services to prevent and respond to harmful practices affecting children, including by linking with broader social protection programmes and by promoting and supporting community-based child protection interventions.
Opal Masocha Sibanda is a human rights lawyer and child rights expert.