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Child marriage is a criminal injustice

Monday December 18 2017

'Jacinta Adhiambo',16, at their village Seme, Kisumu County on June 16, 2015. She got married at 12 years and has so far been been married three times.

'Jacinta Adhiambo',16, at their village Seme, Kisumu County on June 16, 2015. She got married at 12 years and has so far been been married three times. PHOTO | ANGELA OKETCH 

DOROTHY KWEYU
By DOROTHY KWEYU
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Can there be such a thing as child marriage? Not for the African Union Goodwill Ambassador spearheading the campaign to end such injustice against the girl child, Ms Nyaradzayi Gumbozvanda.

The Zimbabwean human rights lawyer is a former Eastern and Horn of Africa regional director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (now UN Women) in Nairobi. 

At a high-level dialogue at Sixeighty Hotel in Nairobi on ending gender-based violence in education, Nyaradzayi asserted that ‘child’ and ‘marriage’ cannot go together.

When she hinted that she was herself a product of rape, you could see participants shifting in their seats…and for good measure. Few people would associate their fathers with raping their mothers. In any case, isn’t rape what happens to girls careless enough to walk in dark alleys or to be in bad company?

Fewer public debates excite more argument than the idea of matrimonial rape. But then, Nyaradzayi was not just talking of any matrimonial rape, but that involving under-age children.

FAMOUS DAUGHTER

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The founder of the Rozaria Memorial Trust established the organisation to honour her mother, who died in 2006, at 83.

At such an age, one would expect the matriarch to have moved on with her life, especially when she was basking in the limelight of her famous daughter—for Nyaradzayi is arguably one of Africa’s most prominent girl child rights advocates.

That her mother always considered it ‘unfair’ to have been forced on her father is food for thought.

It is worth seriously rethinking ‘child marriage’, especially during the longest school vacation, which is a high season for communities that practise female circumcision as a rite of passage.

For those communities, including the candidates, the moment of ‘the cut’ is their proudest. I once witnessed such a ceremony and saw the sheer pride of candidates and their parents.

RITES OF PASSAGE

That is why a young District Officer once told me to forget the hype about alternative rites of passage. “All the girls want is the emblazoned T-shirt and after that they head straight for the cut.” Alternative rites raise awareness on a practice closely associated with child marriage.

Last Thursday’s high-level dialogue zeroed in on education had at its helm Women’s Rights and Empowerment Partnership in Africa (Wrepa), the Young Women’s Christian Association, All Africa Conference of Churches and the Forum for African Women Educationalists.

Listening to the testimony of a child bride from Budalang’i, Busia County, who eventually quit her so-called marriage, when it became untenable, was an eye-opener. It was a reminder that child marriages are not a preserve of circumcising communities; they are a national shame that Nyaradzayi refuses to dignify with the excuse of culture.

CULTURE

The time-honoured bride-price culture is passed off as a poverty-alleviator. Yet bride-price is never paid in full, not to mention that a few cows or goats can never compare with the benefits of keeping a girl child in school.

The reason we must join the campaign to end child marriages is, as Nyaradzayi points out, that ‘child’ and ‘marriage’ simply don’t mix.

Legally—and this should be the fall-back for all child rights advocates—marriage entails the consent of two adults. Morally, socially, and legally, child marriage is child sexual abuse; it is child rape; it is child abduction and forced labour; it is sexual violation of the girl, whose scars last forever.

Wrepa co-founder Hendrica Okondo let me in on the trauma of child marriage, and which is to blame for the high HIV and Aids prevalence in Budalang’i and, indeed, in the entire western Kenya. Beneficiaries of these odious unions must be exposed for what they are: Criminals and paedophiles hiding behind culture and faith.

 Ms Kweyu is a freelance writer and consulting editor. [email protected]

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