Zimbabwe’s Child Marriage Survivor Is Stitching Her Life Back Together One Dress At A Time

Forced into an early marriage, 16-year-old Stella Hanga is an expectant mother desperately fighting to change her narrative.

Stella Hanga’s story is as heartbreaking as they come.

Forced into marriage at the tender age of 14, the now 16-year-old expectant mother is fighting to change her narrative.

After having her right to a normal life stripped from her, Stella has been given renewed hope in the form of an economic strengthening program run by a local organisation.

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic Stella dreamt of becoming a doctor but two years later she was threatened with a future she never anticipated, she tells Awallprintss.

On a blistering summer morning in rural Chipinge, a district 445 km from the capital Harare, she holds up a photo of herself.

It’s a snapshot picture of her ‘wedding day', the day she was sent off to a husband old enough to be her father, an ordeal thousands of Zimbabwean girls face every year.

“This was not a happy day for me,” she says.

Both of her parents died when she was six - leaving her in the custody of her immediate relatives. Her cousin brother engineered the ‘marriage’ without her knowledge with the hope of escaping Covid-19-induced economic challenges.

“I was 14, and in Grade Seven. They married me to a 35-year-old ‘majoni-joni’ man I didn’t even know – and has since disappeared.

“I went through hell. But the nightmare is behind me now,” she says.

Chipinge shares a border with Mozambique and South Africa and ‘majoni-joni’ men are cross-border traders who frequent Johannesburg for greener pastures.

Stella was just 14-years-old when she was married to a 35-year-old man.

They are widely known to flash large amounts of money and wear luxurious clothes to lure young girls.

In Stella's village, prospects for girls are bleak and they are easily hoodwinked by these unrepentant men. She says she never saw herself having to live with men old enough to be her brothers or father, but as fate would have it – she had no one to rescue her from the predicament, “there wasn’t anything to emulate from them when we were growing up”.

Poverty is rampant and finishing secondary school is a challenge. Girls often result in trading sexual favours for financial security or are rather forced into arranged marriages.

Now expecting a child, Stella says she is trying to "take control" of her life and ensure a brighter future for her child.

She has since enrolled in a Community Apprenticeship Club in Chikore Village under the Children Tariro Project (CTP), an economic strengthening arm being implemented by the Family Aids Caring Trust (FACT).

FACT assists Orphaned and Vulnerable Children (OVCs) and Adolescent Girls And Young Women (AGYW) in remote parts of Zimbabwe.

The program is being supported by the U.S President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

Under this project, survivors of child marriages, gender-based violence and vulnerable children are equipped with life skills training to sustain themselves beyond the marriage setup.

Stella is now enrolled in a dressmaking course at Chikore Centre in Chipinge. Although she has shelved plans to become a medical doctor, she hopes to still be a person of influence through the skills she is in the process of obtaining.

“The project mentors identified me after I had gone back home from an abusive relationship I had endured under the hands of that majoni-joni, and enrolled me in a tailoring and designing course.

"I met other girls in similar situations and we are being trained in life-sustaining courses,” she says.

Stella is now enrolled in a dressmaking course at Chikore Centre in Chipinge.

The administrators of the project purchase some of the products made by these young and expectant mothers to help sustain their businesses.

Stella says that even though she dropped out of school – her newly found trade will open up new economic avenues.

"My dream is to be independent and I'm encouraging other girls in the village to do the same," she says shyly.

She says even though she has dropped out of school, she believes her newfound trade will open up new economic avenues for her.

Stella says, “being able to take care of oneself means that you're someone who knows what you want, how to ask for it, and how to take care of yourself.

“It means to seek real love when you want it.”

In the same province in Makoni District girls from vulnerable backgrounds are also getting the same assistance and training.

Abigail Marufu (17) from Rukweza Village in Nyazura is already nine months pregnant (at the time of this report) and expecting her first child.

Stella and Abigail's story mirror that of many other girls who find themselves in early or arranged marriages in Zimbabwe.

FACT Zimbabwe Household Economic Strengthening Specialist, Tariro Diana Mugoni says they have put measures and systems in place to ensure the sustainability of the project, even after the close of the programs.

“The beneficiaries of the Economic Strengthening program will continuously be engaging various stakeholders such as government ministries, the financial services sector for small grants and other partners to ensure they continue getting the support they deserve,” Mugoni says.

“Beyond the project for sustainability, the beneficiaries are given starter packs offered for an actual bridge to employment. We also work closely with the Ministry of Women Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises Development,” she adds.

Nearly a quarter of girls in Zimbabwe become mothers before they reach the age of 18.

The projects aim to ensure local solutions for economic development are sought for OVCs, AGYW and their families to increase their earning capacity and reduce the risk of HIV and Aids.

In Zimbabwe, pregnancy all too often robs young girls of their ambitions and poverty is usually to blame.

According to the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe, a family of six needs $120,835 (US$240) for basics and an average worker in Zimbabwe earns $30,000 (US$60) a month.

Some families have little choice but to marry off their pregnant daughters and pass the financial responsibilities on to their husbands.

The age of consent in Zimbabwe is 16, while the age of adulthood is 18.

However, as of May 24, the Constitutional Court ruled that the legal age of sexual consent be increased from 16 to 18 years old – a ruling that was welcomed by many in a country where advocates say early pregnancies are forcing hundreds of girls to leave school.

In the same judgment, the provisions in the Criminal Law that set the age of consent for sex at 16 were struck down as unconstitutional.

Nearly a quarter of girls in Zimbabwe become mothers before they reach the age of 18 with a lot more facing major challenges and dangers in their lives.

A 2020 UNICEF report indicates that 1.4 million girls were married before the age of 18 and an additional 241,000 were engaged before the age of 15.

The report states that Zimbabwe is home to over 1 million child brides, with 1 in 3 young women married in childhood.

According to the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency (ZimStats), 33.7 per cent of girls aged below 18 are married off.

In 2020 alone, Zimbabwe’s Education Ministry recorded more than 4,960 secondary and 336 primary school girls who dropped out of school due to child marriages.

Last year, Amnesty International urged Zimbabwean authorities to immediately take decisive action to protect girls from the harmful practice of early and forced child marriage.

“The authorities must end impunity for sexual abuse and child marriages, especially within the Apostolic Church sects,” reads part of the statement.

This was after a 14-year-old child bride, Memory Machaya died during childbirth at a Johanne Marange Apostolic Church shrine on July 15, 2021.

Zimbabwe’s cabinet minister, Sithembiso Nyoni tells AWP about the government’s push to empower women and enhance their participation in the fight against child marriages.

Among other things, she highlights how the strategies focus on promoting the retention of girls in schools, challenging social and cultural norms that promote child marriages and economically empowering both women and girls.

Currently, the government is pushing for the enforcement of all legal frameworks that safeguard children. Another critical aspect is improved access to education and survival skills such as sewing, market-gardening and poultry among girls in rural areas so that they can stay and manage to be financially independent if they drop out of school.

“Government has developed a high-level political strategy on ending gender-based violence and harmful practices.

“The compact is a recommitment by the head of state President Emmerson Mnangagwa and other stakeholders to end violence against women and girls, including child marriages,” she explains.

For these young mothers, the economic strengthening programs and government interventions – at least according to them – have come just when they need them most.

They believe it is the start of a long road to dreams deferred.

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