On Friday June 19, just three days after the Day of the African Child celebrations, and two days before Father’s Day, Johannes Tomana, Zimbabwe’s Prosecutor-General (PG) made comments effectively endorsing child marriages and child consent to sexual relations.
Thabani Nyoni ,Buhe Ndebele
As a father of four daughters, he was a reckless and irresponsible parent with a poor sense of occasion. As PG of Zimbabwe, his remarks were so ill-timed that they contradicted this year’s theme of the Day of the African Child, part of which is “accelerating collective efforts to end child marriages in Africa”.
Tomana revealed to Zimbabweans that courts have been exercising discretion when handling cases of rape and sexual abuse of children. In addition, courts also mediated between the interests of the girl-child and “cultural values of marriage”.
In a conflict between the interests of a vulnerable, immature and likely traumatised child on one side, and an adult male manipulator seeking to evade prosecution, possibly supported by a father and/or mother and softened by the prospect of a bride price, on the other, we doubt that courts could have served justice. Our courts may have been complicit in enforcing arranged and forced marriages against the interests of the girl-child.
Tomana publicly admitted to presiding over the institutionalised sexual exploitation of the girl-child posturing as a cultural values advocate. Even for that role, his cultural competency was found wanting because last year, the National Chiefs Council issued a communique on ending child marriages. Tomana succeeded in doing one thing though, speaking like a defence lawyer for the accused child sexual abuser or rapists giving a court strong reasons why a pardon or leniency must be granted.
Our PG’s view of the interest of the girl-child reveals he is distant, cold and ignorant of the plight and conditions of most of the poor little souls that become victims of sexual abuse or child marriages. He was in solidarity with the numerous bad men out there who are backed by the masculine tendencies of our male dominated communities. The learned PG should have understood that the interest of the girl-child cannot find a voice or legitimacy in a marriage arrangement in which in our society is presided over by parents or guardians.
There is a default system that governs our domestic relations and shapes how women and girls should want and do things — it’s called patriarchy. This system has privileged faces called fathers, uncles and brothers — all of them adult and male. It is often silently endorsed by mothers and aunts to make decisions such as how much “damages” to be paid to the parents for the ravaged poor girl-child’s body.
Perhaps Tomana should leave his comfortable office and venture out there to have an appreciation of the fact that in the largely impoverished communities, socially wounded male egos and desperate households, the interests of women and girls barely exist, and if raised, they have no legitimacy.
We struggle to imagine how the PG’s courts have been establishing marriage interests from an abused, scared, traumatised and illiterate poor girl. We struggle to understand how a 12, 13 or even 15-year-old is mentally and physically able to handle the responsibility of being a wife, and a mother. To these and other questions, Zimbabweans certainly need a lot of answers on how courts have been granting leniency and community service to those raping and sexually abusing our children.
Tomana challenged the child rights advocates and boldly declared that “children’s rights and stuff like that” are not really addressing real issues. Real issues, according to him, are that a non-school girl-child should be allowed to marry; “…when you say we can’t do this (referring to child marriages) … when the environment is not allowing … what you are saying about that girl … sit until 21 doing nothing?” These words normalised thousands of regrettable cases where the girl-child is actively prevented from going to school and forced into a polygamous marriage. How different is this from Boko Haram?
For Tomana, marriage is a safe haven, a vocation and a productive sector to which out of school girls can be recruited. Every day, courts handle hundreds of divorce cases, domestic violence cases, women seeking protection from violence, rape, sexual abuse and/or having been infected with HIV by their husbands, yet he supports child marriages. Perhaps he should review the Domestic Violence Act of 2007, which outlawed child marriages.
Our troubled girl-child has a name and face. Her name is Makanaka Wakatama, and this is what she says: “I was raised to stardom at the age of nine. I presented a small television programme for kids, and later became the main anchor of the first Zimbabwean live television show for kids called Star Kids which made me very famous.
“In 2006 … I was impregnated by a businessman and entered into an early marriage at 15 and gave birth to two children by the age of 17. The story became subject of intense debate as I was a minor. With little knowledge of my rights as a girl, there were so many nights of forced sex and violence, I was young and naïve.”
There are thousands of Makanakas out there who continue to be failed by families and courts and suffer to their death.
Clearly, Tomana’s remarks lack context and compassion to the condition of the girl-child. He lacks grounding in various relevant laws and initiatives to address this emotive issue. The office of the PG is certainly in the wrong hands, and our courts could be in a bad state.
In a progressive country where accountability is a patriotic duty, Tomana would have taken full responsibility for his remarks and resigned. He would have understood that his comments and the court’s practices (if true) are a disgrace to our civilisation and humanity. Let us demand that the PG gives way to an independent inquiry into how these cases have been investigated by the police, and then handled by our courts.
Our parliament must tighten the laws through harmonisation with the current constitution and/or new Bills. We must remind the state of its obligations to our children, especially the girl-child. She deserves caring leaders in government to improve universal access to primary and secondary education, not a marriage.
Nyoni is human rights activists currently pursuing graduate studies at the University of California Berkeley in the US. Ndebele is a child rights activist in Zimbabwe. You can send your comments to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.