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 getting married at a young age.
It was a future she also expected for herself – until she stepped on a taekwondo mat for the first time.
She has never looked back.
“Taekwondo gives me hope,” said Nyambupu, who competes in the 45-50kg weight class. “I learn discipline, self-defence and the art pushes me to strive in life.”
Born in a family of five, Nyambupu said lack of financial support forced her to drop out of school aged 13 following the death of her father.
“He was the breadwinner and my mother could not pay my school fees,” she said.
A 2019 report by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) on Zimbabwe said school dropouts and those from poor households were more likely to get married before reaching 18 years – the legal marriage age in the country – as compared with those who continue to higher education.
*Nyasha Tomeni, 43, still recalls the emotional abuse she went through at the hands of her in-laws when she got married aged 17.
“When my parents found that I was pregnant they forced me to elope. My in-laws did not want me to get married to their son. They could not give me food and they called me derogatory names,” said Tomeni.
‘Proving them wrong’
Another report published by UNICEF in 2019 said that about one in three (34%) of women between the ages of 20 and 24 were first married or in union before the age of 18.
Child rights campaigners have warned child marriage cases have risen due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed more families into poverty and kept girls out of school for a longer period.
In a report last year, international charity Save the Children said an estimated 500 000 more girls were at risk of being forced into child marriages worldwide, as a result of the economic effects of Covid-19.
This marked a four percent year-on-year increase, reversing the progress made to reduce early marriage over the previous 25 years.
It was the widespread prevalence of the practice that prompted taekwondo ace Maritsa to launch in 2018 the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium initiative. Since then, the teenager has trained dozens of girls and survivors of child marriages
“Most of my friends were married before 18 years. The future of these girls was robbed while I was watching,” she said. “Some were married off by their parents and guardians. I want to change this,” she added.
“Of course, one should get married after 18 years,” continued Maritsa, the third born in a family of five girls. “But even after reaching the legal age, there is no need to hurry. What is important for the girls is to achieve their dreams such as having a sustainable source of income generation.”
Inspired by her father Richard Maritsa, who practised kyokushin, a full-contact martial art, the teenager delved into the world of martial arts aged five. Later on, she focused on taekwondo and has gone on to compete at national tournaments, winning several accolades.
“Taekwondo is male-dominated. Many people believe that girls cannot survive the pain involved in taekwondo. We are proving them wrong,” she said.
‘Laws are letting us down’
Zimbabwe’s 2013 constitution prohibits boys and girls below the age of 18 from marriage, but the country’s marriage laws do not abide by that, resulting in Zimbabwe having no legislation that explicitly outlaws child marriages.
Despite the constitutional court outlawing a section in the Marriage Act in 2016 which allowed teenagers to get married before their 18th birthday, the practice remains widespread.
An amendment to the Marriage Bill introduced in 2017 seeks to align the inconsistencies in the current marriage legislation to the constitution.
Fadzai Ruzive, a legal practitioner with Women and Law in Southern Africa, said they were eagerly waiting for the bill to be signed into law because it clearly criminalises child marriages.
“The Constitution states that a person can marry at the age of 18. The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act states that at 16 years a person can consent to sex. The Marriage Act sets the marriage age at 16 years. So, when we have laws that are not in alignment with the Constitution it creates a lot of problems. The laws are letting us down,” she said.
From January to February 2021, nearly 5 000 teenagers fell pregnant while more than 1 000 were married before their 18th birthday, local media reported, citing a new government report which highlighted that the figures might be higher as 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 be facing legal consequences.
“Most of us girls get married early to escape poverty. But I have realised that poverty can still follow you at your husband’s home. It is important for us to achieve our dreams first,” said the 13-year-old.
Calling the number of children being married off before 18 worrying, Zimbabwe’s Women Affairs Minister Sithembiso Nyoni said that aligning the country’s marriage laws to the constitution, and with each other, will enable the police and judiciary to make child marriage perpetrators and those who facilitate the marriage of children accountable.
“The ministry continues to engage with our counterparts in the justice ministry who administer the Marriage Act and are also currently behind the enactment of the Marriage Bill. The law-making process is not as simple as a straightforward issue. The law is dynamic and ever-changing and there is a need to balance the interests of different stakeholders, so, as to come up with a sound piece of legislation,” she said.
In August 2020, in an attempt to stop many girls from dropping out of school and to tackle gender inequality in the classroom, the government made it illegal for schools to expel pupils who got pregnant.
Back in Epworth, Nyambupu is back at a taekwondo training class following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in early September. She said she hoped to make a career in the sport.
“I hope taekwondo will change my life. I dream of travelling beyond the borders to participate in regional and international competitions such as the Olympics.
“For now, getting married is off my to-do list.”