Child Marriage in Zimbabwe: We need to talk about “respectable” womanhood

We need more than legal reform to end child marriage. We require a complete societal overhaul such that we come to recognise the agency of women and girls. Child marriage persists because of patriarchal hegemony and the misogyny that colours the way we interact with girls and their aspirations. It’s all well and good for Africa to put its foot down and say that we’ll no longer put up with it, but if we pretend that misogyny does not underpin this issue, we will whitewash the problem, not fix it. Frankly, we cannot get society to respect girlhood when womanhood continues to be a highly contested, often dehumanised, site. Girls then, operate under the double burden of being young and female. Further, we must accept that child marriage is not uncommon. BI am currently fascinated with the way in which our society’s construction of respectable womanhood feeds into the pervasiveness of the practice.

Legal reform is a start but will never be enough.

If ending child marriage were a matter of passing the right laws, Zimbabwe would be done. Our constitution says that you must be 18 to get married. Previously, girls could get married at 16 and 12 (civil marriage and customary marriage respectively). As soon as the Marriage Act and Customary Marriages Act are amended the issue has been dealt with, as far as the law is concerned.

However, Zimbabwe will struggle with enforcement. On one hand, marriage certificates are required in order to have a legally valid customary or civil law union, so we’d hope that the Registrar-General’s office has already been clamping down on who they issue certificates to. But on the other hand we know full well that a large proportion of Zimbabweans are in unregistered customary law unions. Many people go through the roora process, throw a party and call it a day, waiting to chata eventually, if ever. The roora process is decentralised; there is no way for the State to know when these marriages are taking place let alone actually stop them.

Further, we lack criminal sanctions for those who marry off their daughters or for those who marry children. Even if there were there, getting people to report the marriages in situations that don’t involve young girls, but say – teenage girls who have fallen pregnant, could be tricky.

The scenario we don’t like to think of as child marriage…but is

Many of us would like to say that we’ve never, seen/heard of/participated in an instance of child marriage. We’d like to distance ourselves, and attribute it to the hardships of rural society or the irrational decisions of fringe religious groups. But that’s not quite true is it? Child marriage happens frequently in our urban settings as an anecdote to teen pregnancy. We find out our daughter is pregnant, are aghast that she is “loose” and we encourage her into a hasty union that was negotiated on the premise that “if you break it you buy it”. Yes, we think of pregnant teens as damaged goods. This is a by-product of a lingering puritanical viewpoint that somehow equates a woman’s moral character with her sexual activity. Good womanhood in our society is premised, amongst other things, on sexual “purity” – the good old Jezebel-Madonna binary.

The role of “respectability” in perpetuating child marriage

In Zimbabwean society, marriage remains the gateway to respectability as a woman. We are constantly promised that respectability is a gateway to legitimacy: the full attainment of personhood and rights. I have written elsewhere on the problems with respectability politics. Women are constantly embroiled in respectability in order to “prove” that they deserve to be treated like grownups with legitimate ideas. Respectability comes with many ideas about propriety, often disguised behind classist notions of “ladylike” behaviour. Respectability is admittedly a useful currency when it comes to attempting to survive a system designed to devalue and harm you. This is why there are women patriarchs; they ride the wave of the benefits they get from being complicit in the oppression and policing of other women’s bodies.

Child marriage is a women’s rights issue. This is because girls face the same oppressions that solidify when you enter adulthood, but without the protections of an adult voice. See, patriarchs don’t just wake up one day and say that they’d like to perpetuate oppressive yardsticks. Nope, that’s the product of social conditioning that starts from girlhood. We teach everyone that for girls the key indicator of success is getting married, like a good respectable woman. The point here is not to suggest that marriage is inherently evil or oppressive, but rather to point out that in our society marriage is regarded as an objective good. It is never a bad idea.

Growing up, we teach everyone that women’s bodies are inherently shameful. We’re taught to have a disdain of those who explore their sexualities and treat their bodies as their own, as opposed to a precious commodity to hold onto (virginity intact) until it can be handed off to some man. Our puritanical perceptions of girls’/women’s bodies as inherently sinful and harmful mean that in the event of being caught in a situation where you are made “impure” there are attempts to regularise this through the respectability of marriage. Marriage is seen as a purifier.

Coming back to the teen pregnancy scenario, whilst the marriage might be a little hasty it is seen as killing two birds with one stone: 1. The shame is lifted because a marriage to regularise sexual activity has taken place 2. You have a husband, which you were going to need anyway in order to be recognised as a respectable woman.

Conclusion

Until we create a society that is willing to recognise the personhood and agency of women without the respectability marriage lends, we’re going to have a hard time rooting out the commodification of girls. As a society we need to ask ourselves some searching questions so as to weed out misogyny in all its manifestations.

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