Epworth, Zimbabwe – Growing up in Epworth, a densely populated suburb southeast of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare, 17-year-old Lisa Nyambupu would see many of her friends marry at a young age.
It was a future that she was also waiting for for herself – until she walked on a taekwondo mat for the first time.
“All along, I thought there was nothing wrong with getting married early,” said Nyambupu, who decided in 2019 to join a taekwondo training course offered by another girl her age. , Natsiraishe Maritsa. “It was during this forum that I learned that this is in fact a bad practice that should not be encouraged.
She never looked back.
“Taekwondo gives me hope,” said Nyambupu, who competes in the 45-50 kg weight class. “I learn discipline, self-defense and the art pushes me to struggle in life.”
Born into a family of five, Nyambupu said lack of financial support forced her to drop out of school at the age of 13 following the death of her father.
“He was the breadwinner and my mom couldn’t afford my school fees,” she said.
A 2019 United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report on Zimbabwe said school dropouts and people from poor households were more likely to marry before reaching 18 – the legal age for childbearing. marriage in the country – compared to those who pursue higher education. .
* Nyasha Tomeni, 43, still remembers the emotional abuse she suffered from her in-laws when she got married at the age of 17.
“When my parents found out I was pregnant, they forced me to run away. My in-laws didn’t want me to marry their son. They couldn’t feed me and they called me derogatory names, ”Tomeni said.
“Prove them wrong”
Another report released by UNICEF in 2019 indicates that about one in three women (34%) between the ages of 20 and 24 were married or in union for the first time before the age of 18.
Child rights activists have warned that cases of child marriage have increased due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed more families into poverty and prevented girls from attending school for a longer period.
In a report last year, the international charity Save the Children said about 500,000 more girls were at risk of being forced into child marriage around the world, due to the economic effects of COVID-19 .
This marked a 4% year-over-year increase, reversing progress made in reducing early marriage over the previous 25 years.
It was the widespread prevalence of the practice that prompted taekwondo ace Maritsa to launch the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium initiative in 2018. The teenager has since trained dozens of girls and early marriage survivors
“Most of my friends got married before they were 18. The future of these girls was stolen as I watched, ”she said. “Some were married off by their parents and guardians. I want to change that, ”she added.
“Of course, you have to get married after 18,” continued Maritsa, the third born in a family of five girls. “But even after reaching legal age, there is no need to hurry. What is important for girls is to achieve their dreams, such as having a sustainable source of income generation. “
Inspired by her father Richard Maritsa, who practiced kyokushin, a full-contact martial art, the teenager immersed herself in the world of martial arts at the age of five. She later focused on taekwondo and competed in national tournaments, winning several accolades.
“Taekwondo is dominated by men. Many people believe that girls cannot survive the pain of taekwondo. We prove them wrong, ”she said.
“The laws abandon us”
Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution prohibits marriage for boys and girls under the age of 18, but the country’s marriage laws do not comply, so Zimbabwe has no legislation explicitly prohibiting marriage. child marriages.
Although the Constitutional Court banned an article in the Marriage Law in 2016 that allowed teenagers to marry before their 18th birthday, the practice remains widespread.
An amendment to the Marriage Bill introduced in 2017 aims to align inconsistencies in current marriage law with the constitution.
Fadzai Ruzive, a lawyer for Women and Law in Southern Africa, said they are eagerly awaiting the enactment of the bill as it clearly criminalizes child marriage.
“The Constitution states that a person can marry at the age of 18. The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act states that at 16 a person can consent to sexual relations. The Marriage Law fixes the age of marriage at 16 years. So when we have laws that do not conform to the Constitution, it creates a lot of problems. The laws let us down, ”she said.
From January to February 2021, nearly 5,000 teenage girls became pregnant while more than 1,000 were married before their 18th birthday, local media reported, citing a new government report that pointed out the numbers could be higher because most cases go unreported.
Kimberly Mupambawatyi, who has been part of Maritsa’s taekwondo class since 2020, said perpetrators of child marriages, including parents and legal guardians, should face legal consequences.
“Most of us girls get married early to escape poverty. But I understood that poverty can still follow you to your husband. It is important for us to make our dreams come true first, ”said the 13-year-old.
Calling the worrying number of children married before age 18, Zimbabwe’s Minister of Women’s Affairs Sithembiso Nyoni said aligning the country’s marriage laws with the constitution, and with each other, will allow police and justice to ensure that perpetrators of child marriage and those who facilitate responsible child marriage.
“The Ministry continues to engage with our counterparts in the Ministry of Justice who administer the Marriage Law and are also currently behind the enactment of the Marriage Bill. The legislative process is not as simple as a simple question. The law is dynamic and constantly evolving and there is a need to balance the interests of different stakeholders, in order to come up with strong legislation, ”she said.
In August 2020, in an effort to prevent many girls from dropping out of school and tackle gender inequalities in the classroom, the government banned schools from expelling students who became pregnant.
Back in Epworth, Nyambupu is back in a taekwondo training class after COVID-19 restrictions were eased in early September. She said she hoped for a career in sports.
“I hope taekwondo will change my life. I dream of traveling across borders to participate in regional and international competitions like the Olympic Games.
“Right now, getting married is not on my to-do list.”
This story was published with the support of Media Monitoring Africa and UNICEF, as part of the lsu Elihle Awards