Senzeni Ndlovu looks at ease and somewhat an elderly woman at peace with her soul.
But not until she lifts the lid on her troubled life and narrates how early child marriages have been curses that have dented her daughters’ hopes of an optimistic future.
Senzeni always weeps when she opens up on how her first daughter, Mavis Ndlovu, got married at 13.
“Shivering in a thin cotton dress that barely kept away the late afternoon chill Mavis was led like a lamb to the slaughter to her husband’s makeshift mud and pole hut. With tears streaming down my cheeks I begged my husband to reverse his decision but he said that was the only way she would have a better life since we were poor,” said Senzeni.
What deeply pains Senzeni is the pain Mavis went through in trying to cope with marriage.
“My daughter disclosed to a family friend that she was so frightened when she ducked the low doorway and entered her husband’s dimly lit hut for the first time. Her husband directed her onto a reed mat and told her to lie on her back. Throughout, she closed her eyes and willed the whole thing to be over. She was so ashamed and she wept silently,” said Senzeni.
Unfortunately, Mavis contracted a sexually transmitted disease (STI) and succumbed to the illness as a teenage bride.
After this loss, Senzeni never anticipated that her other daughter would be enticed into an early marriage.
Then tragedy banged on the family’s door again. Melody Ndlovu, the family’s second daughter, was impregnated at the age of 14. She had to abandon her high school studies and get married.
“My first days in the marriage were blissful,” she recalls.
“Two months down the line my husband became violent. He would beat me every time he saw me talking to males he didn’t know.”
“He also had multiple girlfriends and when I questioned him about them he would slap me. Although I feared I would contract HIV I was left with no choice but to keep quiet,” she said.
About eleven years down the line, the 25-year-old victim who is now a widow and a mother of two has not recovered from the abuse which she squarely blames on her parents’ silence.
“Every time I endured hardships in my marriage I wanted to go back home but my parents encouraged me to pray so that things get better. According to our society getting married is a good thing especially if the man is rich. My parents were struggling to make ends meet so I just had to endure the abusive marriage,” said Melody.
Melody’s predicament brings back sad memories to her mother.
“Losing my first daughter to an STI at such a tender age was a painful experience. I did not want my second daughter to get married but people in the village strongly insisted that she goes to her husband since he was willing to stay with her,” said Senzeni.
Mavis and Melody’s heart-rending cases are, however, not an isolated incident but also an indication of how a significant number of young girls enter into marriages without any chance of exercising their right to choose.
Due to their popularity especially in the rural areas, early child marriages are seldom seen as a human rights violation. Nonetheless, child marriages violate Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as numerous other human rights treaties.
The consequences of child marriages are horrendous.
While their schooling and childhood are slashed short, the child brides often undergo a distressing instigation into sexual relationships. They are put at risk of domestic violence and STIs and usually their bright future is doomed.
Zimbabwe child marriages are illegal in Zimbabwe; but a projected 34 percent of girls are married before they turn 18, which is the legal age at which one can get married.
About one in three girls in Zimbabwe are married before their 18th birthday.
These figures are a vexing reflection of a trend, which has seen gender activists such as Virginia Muwanigwa, a gender and information programs officer for the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, calling on parents to come on board and help reduce the scourge of poverty-induced child marriages.
“Parents need to be educated more about the importance of allowing their girls to continue with their education in the event that they fall pregnant while still young because in most instances they allow the girls to get married to an elderly abusive man,” said Muwanigwa.
She added: “Due to poverty, parents are encouraging their young daughters to get married to older men. Most of them are afraid to speak against child marriages. We urge parents to desist from this behavior and report child marriages.”
Muwanigwa’s fervent appeal portrays a society that has failed the girl child.
A report by the Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) in 2014 predicted that if the current trends continue, 142 million girls worldwide will marry before they reach the age of 18.
The need to curb child marriages in Zimbabwe has seen the international community chipping in to help end child marriages, such as the United Nations Volunteers (UNV) does through online campaigns.
Consequences for child marriages are atrocious, and if the problem is not dealt with it will curb the country’s efforts towards the fulfillment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and the realization of the Africa's potential demographic dividend.