By Marko Phiri
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Thobekile Mpofu was 15 when she got pregnant to a 41-year-old man who quickly accepted responsibility and married her, avoiding possible legal action for having sex with an underage girl.
Child rights activists on Thursday launched a campaign to call on the authorities to crack down on men using marriage to avoid criminal charges for having sex with a minor, one of the factors fuelling the number of child marriages in Zimbabwe.
Figures from the United Nation's child agency, UNICEF, show that one in nine girls aged under 15 in Zimbabwe are married, with child marriage often ending a girl's education and exposing her to health risks from early childbearing and HIV.
Mpofu said her marriage was a "nightmare" and she ran away from her husband after he took a second wife. She says she has nothing but regrets 10 years on for being married so young which she hopes will not happen to other girls.
"I cannot wish this on anyone ... I fled to South Africa to my sisters. That's how the marriage ended," said Mpofu who, together with her child, now lives with a relative in Bulawayo.
The campaign calling for authorities to do more to stop child marriages was launched by the Research and Advocacy Unit, Girls Legacy, the Zimbabwe Women Lawyers and Human Rights Watch.
Girls Legacy Director Judith Chiyangwa questioned whether the government was committed to act despite mounting pressure.
"Is there political will to do this?" Chiyangwa asked.
The exact scale of child marriage in Zimbabwe is not known as most child marriages are unregistered customary law unions.
A 2014 survey by Zimbabwe's National Statistics Agency found one in three women aged 20 to 49 reported that they married before age 18 while an estimated 4 percent marry before age 15.
But Zimbabwe has conflicting legal provisions on the minimum age for marriage. Its constitution does not expressly prohibit child marriage and a number of laws effectively condone it.
Extreme poverty, poor access to education, and certain harmful religious beliefs and social norms fuel child marriage in Zimbabwe, according to a Human Rights Watch report.
A recent UNICEF report said an estimated 125 million girls are child brides in Africa and that number is expected to rise to 310 million by 2050 with girls married to pay off family debt or for traditional reasons.
Jane Khumalo, a teacher and counsellor in Bulawayo, said often families allowed their daughters into these marriages, particularly if they were pregnant, because they could not afford to look after them.
"Marriage becomes the only thing that makes sense in these tough economic conditions," Khumalo said.
Kuda Chitsike, director of the Research and Advocacy Unit, a rights group in Zimbabwe, said calling this child marriage was "to legitimize child abuse". It is illegal to have sex with a girl aged under 16 in Zimbabwe.
The country's chief magistrate, Mishrod Guvamombe, this week said child marriages are a violation of child's rights.
Jessie Majome, an opposition legislator who chairs the parliamentary committee on justice, legal and parliamentary affairs, said child marriage continued because of the collapsed economy and called for tougher enforcement of existing laws.
"(Marrying a child) is a very serious criminal offence but if the law is not fully enforced, then we will continue having this problem," Majome told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)