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‘My family had no business selling me off for R4’

Think child marriages only happen in far off countries? Think again.

The end of Maureen’s days at a primary school in north-eastern Zimbabwe marked the beginning of her life as a wife.

At 13, the brightest student in her class in Mudzi, Mashonaland, she was married to a man three times her age.

Her father, a poor farmer, had promised to fund Maureen’s secondary education but, when the time came, he could not raise the money. Marrying off his daughter was a quick fix. Maureen swiftly fell pregnant and was still 13 when she gave birth after spending hours in labour. The baby did not survive.

Three years on and Maureen is at Chinhoyi provincial hospital. She is among the scores of underage brides being cared for here who are suffering from obstetric fistula, caused by prolonged labour.

“I haven’t forgiven my parents for doing this to me. I had a bright future, but now they treat me like an outcast,” Maureen says.

“When my parents told me about the marriage I couldn’t believe it, because they had always given me the impression that I was their most intelligent child and I would pursue my studies. The man was abusive, he called me names and beat me several times, especially after I lost my baby,” she says. “My dreams were destroyed by that man.”

Child marriage in Zimbabwe is often driven by poverty. Dowries offer a welcome, if brief, respite from penury in low-income households struggling to weather a vicious economic crisis. The brides, though, are more likely to remain in a state of privation due to lack of personal development and education.

Although underage marriage is illegal following a 2016 court case and local organisations have been fighting against it as an economic transaction, the financial meltdown has worsened the situation. About 22% of Zimbabwean women between the ages of 15 to 19 are either married, cohabitating, widowed or divorced, according to the country’s 2015 demographic and health survey.

According to Girls Not Brides, some families see little worth in girls.

“In many communities, economic opportunities are severely limited, especially for girls and women. Families, therefore, see little value in educating their daughters and instead marry them off to fulfil the role of a wife and mother,” says a Girls Not Brides spokesperson.

Zimbabwe is facing an acute shortage of cash and, as basic commodities disappear from the shelves, families’ disposable income has been depleted.

Rights defenders say child marriage has spiralled in the rural areas that constitute the majority of the country.

Kresi, 16, from Masvingo, is another teenager whose future was jeopardised when she was married off to a cattle farmer in her village. Her family received a dowry of two cows and a few groceries in exchange for Kresi. She also suffers from obstetric fistula, a hole between the genital tract and bladder or rectum caused by lengthy or obstructed labour.

Women and girls who experience obstetric fistula suffer constant incontinence, shame, social segregation and further health problems. Although the condition is treatable, the World Health Organisation estimates that more than 2-million young women in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa live with fistulas.

“I felt cheap and abused. My mates are in high school doing well for themselves. [My family] had no business selling me off. Now I have this condition which I cannot control. No one has even come to see me in this hospital,” Kresi says, sobbing.

Tendai, 14, of Bindura says her family gave her away in exchange for 100 Zimbabwean dollars (R4).

She was married to a man with three wives. As the youngest wife, Tendai is burdened with both child-bearing and work in the fields.

“I still want to go back to school. I just hope my husband can give me that chance. But as the youngest wife I have to do everything here at home,” Tendai says.

She is bitter over her parent’s decision to marry her off.

With a drought looming and disposable incomes depleted from galloping inflation, poor families are more likely to exchange their daughter for very little.

“In areas like Binga, Matabeleland, the dowry can be a goat, which is an insult to the value of the girl. In some instances families just leave their child at the man’s house to lessen their own burden,” says Grace Maunganidze, a local activist.

Another activist, Abigail Mutema, blames child marriages on the stronghold of a patriarchal society.

“Until women are emancipated, child marriages will never end. In some of the communities, girls as young as 16 are deemed too old, so they need to get married. There is nothing to do in the rural areas, so the easier route is to get married. Poverty plays a role in these child marriages,” says Mutema.

“Older women have become perpetrators of these early child marriages. A woman is not complete without marriage, they say.”

This is an edited version of a feature originally published as part of The Guardian’s Global Development project.