Child marriage is a significant cultural practice in much of Sub-Saharan Africa. It is mostly prevalent in countries like Niger, Chad, and Mali. But it remains widespread in other African, Asian and Latin American societies. This article examines the practice in Zimbabwe. I will set out to dismiss two the arguments made in support of child marriage in Zimbabwe: financial gain and guarding sexual purity.
The practice of child marriage in Zimbabwe
Both UNICEF and the Zimbabwean constitution define child marriage as the (often forced) marriage or informal union involving children who are below the age of 18. Although involving both genders, it mainly entails the giving of under-age girls to older men. And the practice has remained widespread in Zimbabwe despite a declaration from the Constitutional Court that marriages must be by consent of both parties. Furthermore, both of those parties must both be at least 18 years of age.
There is a lack of hard data on the practice in Zimbabwe. However, global trends are a helpful indication of how serious the practice is around the world. The United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) predicts that more than 140 million girls will have been made into child brides between 2011 and 2020. This translates to 14 million annually, 39 000 daily! In addition, of the 140 million married off before the age of consent, about 35% (50 million) will be younger than 15 years old. The staggering figures suggest that the church has a huge humanitarian challenge at hand.
Below I will mention two common points, made in defence of the practice. Then we will consider them from Christian perspective, allowing the Bible to shape our practice.
1. A Means of Alleviating Poverty
Dire poverty is a major factor in many communities. For instance, where the customary bride price in Zimbabwe (lobola) for an adult lady can be as high as 12 cows (USD$4000), it is very tempting for many families to earn extra income by giving out their daughters in marriage as early as possible. They can also avoid the cost of raising their daughter into adulthood.
Marriage should not be entered into for purely financial reasons
The challenge posed by poverty in many local African communities is immense. Relatives and community members often compound this through pressure and demands. Nevertheless, the truth about the significance of the human individual and the marriage institution means that we must never sacrifice either for financial gain. The truth of the gospel liberates us. For it teaches not only that every little girl is precious, but that marriage itself is sacred and requires conscious preparation. Both these teachings are violated in the case of child marriage in Zimbabwe.
The gospel liberates us. For it teaches not only that every little girl is precious, but that marriage itself is sacred
2. A False Safeguard against Sexual Sin and Diseases
Doubtless, a culture of rampant sexuality is emerging globally. Seductive images, sensual music and content, along with pornography undoubtedly foster this culture. Thus some argue that child marriage shields young girls from the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Others claim that by placing her early within the institution of marriage, she is being helped to avoid sexual temptations and sin.
The Bible gives us a deeper understanding of the problem of sin
Adultery or fornication begins with lust and disordered desires. Murder is the fruit of angry emotions (Matthew 5:21-30). Attempting to prevent sin by distorting God’s creational design is unwise and impotent. God provides a better way of dealing with sin, which does not destroy our human nature or distort the relationships he created for our flourishing. Through the cross and the work of the Holy Spirit in everyone who trusts in Christ, sexual temptations can be resisted.
We Cannot Defend Child Marriage in Zimbabwe
God has created every person in his image. Therefore to reduce a child to a commodity is to rob them of something essentially human and God-given.
In conclusion, we cannot defend child marriage in Zimbabwe. Especially not on the basis of what is financially expedient for a family or community. It is the responsibility of parents to make sacrifices for their children. But in child marriage parents selfishly sacrifice their children for themselves. God has created every person in his image. Therefore to reduce a child to a commodity is to rob them of something essentially human and God-given. Secondly at the root of sin is the human heart, therefore the solution to sin is a transformed heart not tyrannical practices.