By Emma Batha
LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Two former child brides have taken Zimbabwe's government to court in a ground-breaking bid to get child marriages declared illegal and unconstitutional.
Loveness Mudzuru and Ruvimbo Tsopodzi say child marriage, which is rife in Zimbabwe, is a form of child abuse which traps girls in lives of poverty and suffering.
"I've faced so many challenges. My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible," said Tsopodzi, a mother of one, who was married at 15.
"I want to take this action to make a difference," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Harare on Tuesday. "There are a lot of children getting married."
Data published last year indicates one third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before their 18th birthday and 5 percent before they turn 15.
Child marriage deprives girls of education and opportunities, jeopardises their health and increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death or serious injury in childbirth.
In their statements to the Constitutional Court, Tsopodzi and Mudzuru, now 19 and 20, say Zimbabwe's Marriage Act is discriminatory because it sets the minimum age at 16 for girls and 18 for boys. The Customary Marriage Act sets no minimum age.
They say the law should be brought into line with Zimbabwe's 2013 constitution as well as regional and international treaties banning child marriage.
The 2013 constitution says every child under 18 has the right to parental care, education and protection from "economic and sexual exploitation".
It does not set a minimum marriage age, but states that no one should be forced to marry against their will and indicates that 18 is the minimum age for starting a family.
Poverty is the driving force behind child marriage in Zimbabwe. Parents often marry girls off so they have one less mouth to feed. Dowry payments may be a further incentive.
Some communities also see child marriage as a way of protecting girls from having premarital sex.
In her affidavit, Mudzuru described how child marriage and poverty create a vicious circle.
"Young girls who marry early and often in poor families are then forced to produce young children in a sea of poverty and the cycle begins again," she stated.
Mudzuru, who was married at 16 and had two children before she was 18, said her life was "hell" and she spent her days trapped in drudgery.
"My life is really tough. Raising a child when you are a child yourself is hard," she said by phone from her home in Harare. "I should be going to school."
The girls' lawyer, former finance minister Tendai Biti, presented the legal challenge in January.
Beatrice Savadye, who heads rights group ROOTS which is backing the ground-breaking case, said it had generated a lot of interest both inside Zimbabwe and in other countries in the region.
She said it was unclear when the court would give its decision, but that it had to rule within six months.
Globally, some 15 million girls are married off every year. Across sub-Saharan Africa, 40 percent of women are married as children.