By Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda*
I was so shocked by Johaness Tomana, Zimbabwe’s Prosecutor-General’s recent interview on the issue of sexual consent for girls and child marriage. I have listened and played the original audio a number of times, given the outcry and expression of outrage by hundreds of Zimbabweans.
Tomana’s statements are just unacceptable because, the Prosecutor-General is a constitutional office. As the public protector, he is the most senior legal advisor on matters of criminal justice to the nation. His knowledge of the constitution and the law should be impeccable, clear and consistent. His mandate is to uphold the constitution and protect human rights of all citizens through the application of the law. In matters relating to children, the best interest of the child must be paramount.
Tomana failed to provide clear and coherent information on the constitutional position related to sexual consent for girls and child marriage. He clearly considers girls as young as 9 or 12 as potentially capable of consenting to sex irrespective of the law. He failed to acknowledge that Zimbabwe’s constitution sets the age of marriage at 18 years. His clear support for lenient sentences including community service for such sexual offences does not accord with societal expectation for stiff sentences in cases of rape and sexual crimes especially related to children.
In addition, Tomana’s statements that child marriage could be an option for girls who drop out of school is abhorrent. His statement indicts parents, families and the government in failing to provide education for girls. In prescribing marriage for such girls, he is condemning the children and the future of the country to the pitfalls of extreme poverty, condoning sexual abuse and opening the floodgates for exploitation of girls. This is a shocking position from a senior government official. He is expected to advocate for the right to education and potentially use the law to bring to book men or parents who opt to marry such girls. In his statements, Tomana shows lack of respect for advancing the rights of women nor interest protecting their dignity.
His casual, contradictory and outrageous statements undermine the efforts the country is making to fight child marriage and build a strong foundation and future for the girl child. Zimbabwe is signatory to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child as well as the Convention on the Rights of the Children. In order for the continent to achieve the recently launched African Common Position on Ending Child Marriage within a single generation, it is an imperative that government officials lead by example in their attitude and commitment to fighting this harmful practice and gross violation of rights of girls.
Zimbabwe has a child marriage prevalence rate of 30%. The prevalence of child marriage indicates that Mashonaland Central leads with 50%. In second place is Mashonaland West 42%, Masvingo 39%, Mashonaland East 36%, Midlands 31%, Manicaland 30%, Matabeleland North 27%, Harare 19%, Matabeleland South 18% while Bulawayo has the least prevalence with about 10%. (Source. UNICEF). Africa has the highest number of countries with high prevalence rate of child marriage with some countries such as Niger at 74%. This practice is often attributed to poverty and negative social norms embedded in patriarchy and gender inequality. However, there should be no justification to perpetuate this criminal act and abuse of girls.
In this regard, Tomana’s position undermines the integrity of his office, for the administration of justice in sexual offences including child marriage. I therefore fully support the statement by the Zimbabwean child rights organization on this matter. His position has become untenable.
*Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is a Zimbabwean, African Union Goodwill Ambassador for the Campaign to End Child Marriage, and General Secretary of the World YWCA.