At 14, Justine firmly believed that the world was her oyster and the future hers to shape and conquer. She was bright and her mother made enough money as a seamstress to send her to a decent public school in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.
“I used to dream about finishing school, finding a job and being independent,” the now 38-year-old told me. “I would buy a car or a house and do anything I wanted to do.” But shortly after her 14th birthday, her mother died of meningitis, and life as she knew it came to an end.
Twenty-four years after the loss of her mother, Justine, married since she was 16, lives in Harare in the back of someone else’s dusty yard. Her home is a dimly lit garage at the end of a driveway without a car. Her eyes speak of crushed hopes and shattered dreams. And yet there is a hint of defiance in her look.
While she recounted her story of becoming a bride and mother while still a child, I caught glimpses of the once fiercely independent-minded teenage girl lurking just beneath the surface of her calm composure. But there was a time once when she thought it was better to die.
Like many girls coerced into marriages at an early age, she’s given up all dreams of finishing her education and has been trapped in a poverty that strains an already turbulent relationship and threatens her children’s future.
Like Justine, one in three Zimbabwean women between 20 and 49 reported that they had been married before age 18, according to a government survey. Almost a third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before their 18th birthday, and four percent before they turn 15. Child marriage is a growing problem in Zimbabwe, says new Human Rights Watch research [BS1] published on the eve of the Zambia African Union Summit on Ending Child Marriage in Africa.
The practice has been fueled by a rise in extreme poverty, rigid religious beliefs, harmful customs and weak government systems to protect girls against abuse. Early marriage not only severely curtails girls’ access to education, it also exposes them to physical abuse and from a very young age to serious health risks.
After her mother’s death, Justine was sent to a rural area outside of Harare to live with her grandparents. Money was short and so was food. For two years, Justine walked the 12 kilometers to school and back because her grandparents could not afford the bus fare. “Most times when I came back from school, there was no food for me to eat,” she recalled. “I was hungry all the time. And there was always a lot of work waiting for me.”
The young girl, uprooted and mourning her mother, found solace in the arms of an older boy. They met at her new school. He was 19 and lonely as she was, she found it hard to resist his interest in her. “He was someone I could share all my problems with,” she said. “A shoulder to cry on.”
But trouble followed quickly. Justine, just 16 and in form two (or grade 11) at the time, became pregnant. Having had no sex education, she had not used contraceptives. So instead of graduating, she was made to leave school and her grandparents’ house. Rather than becoming the nurse she had dreamed of being, she found herself a teenage mother nursing a baby.
Her grandparents did what many guardians of teenage girls in Zimbabwe do, especially in rural communities, if a girl falls pregnant — or sleeps out, returns home late after seeing a boyfriend, or is seen by a senior family member in the company of a boyfriend. They told her to go and live with the man she was seeing.
“It hurt me a lot, that they did not want me at home and that I was not allowed to continue with school,” Justine told me. “But what choice did I have?” Abortion would have been illegal, and not an option anyway, she said.
Having been forced to move in with her boyfriend, Justine felt compelled to agree to get married. How was she going to survive as a single mother without an education?
There was no wedding ceremony, no official registration. It was a day like any other, when Justine and the father of her child had their customary marriage and became husband and wife – a step that would cost her the independence she had craved so much.
Justine would have loved to go back to school and finish her education, once she had had her first child. But she had no money for school fees, books or babysitters, and neither had her husband.
Having failed his final exams, Justine’s husband never found a proper job. Once the baby arrived, money became ever tighter. He began to drown his frustration about not being able to provide in alcohol, blaming Justine for their misery. Justine would bear his late-night tirades and abusive spells with stoic silence, knowing that arguing with a drunken man might only lead to getting hurt.
But one night in 1998, when she was pregnant with their second child, he beat her up after she dared to talk back. She had tried everything to find work to supplement their meager income, yet here he was, ranting that things would be so much better if only she would get a job. Angry and distressed, Justine doused herself in paraffin and set herself alight. “I thought that it was better to die, than to live such a life,” she said, tears in her eyes.
It was a desperate act of defiance. Justine and the baby survived but the incident scarred her for life. She stayed with her husband — because she couldn’t see a way out, and because her children needed her. Having forgotten the pill “once or twice,” she even had another child- – a daughter, who is now 15.
The family has found shelter in a garage in the back of a property that belongs to Justine’s brother-in-law. They live off the little money her husband makes selling airtime for mobile phones – a luxury they cannot afford. With a monthly income of rarely more than US$100, they have barely enough money to afford to eat. s.] Even the school fees of $100 per term for each child have become unaffordable. For a year now Justine’s two teenagers have been out of school, whiling away the days.
Observing her children watch their little cousin, who lives in the main house opposite the garage, kick up the red dust of the yard as he returns from school, his satchel dancing on his back, Justine feels their pain. She would do anything to ensure that her children can finish their education. Since she has been deprived of shaping her own future, nothing these days seems more important to her than saving her own children, especially her daughter, from a similar fate.
“Girls must finish school, get a job and be independent,” she said, defiant as ever. “Early marriage is not a way out. On the contrary, you might end up in a worse situation than the one you were trying to escape.” – Human Rights Watch
(Birgit Schwarz – @BirgitMSchwarz – Senior Press Officer at Human Rights Watch.)