In Zimbabwe, where girls as young as 10 are forced to marry due to poverty or traditional and religious practices, a teenage girl passionate about taekwondo uses sport to give girls in a poor community a chance to fight in life.
“Not many people do taekwondo here, so it’s fascinating for girls, married or single. I use it to get their attention, ”said Natsiraishe Maritsa, 17, a martial arts fan since the age of five, who now uses taekwondo to rally young girls and mothers to join hands and fight against child marriage.
Children as young as four and some of Natsiraishe’s former classmates who are now married line up in the dusty little yard outside his parents’ house in poor Epworth settlement, about 9 miles south- east of the capital, Harare.
They enthusiastically follow his instructions for stretching, kicking, hitting, hitting and fighting. After class, they talk about the dangers of child marriage.
Holding their babies, the recently married girls took the lead. One after another, they recounted how they faced verbal and physical abuse, marital rape, pregnancy health complications and hunger.
“We are not ready for this thing called marriage. We’re just too young for that, ”Maritsa told The Associated Press after the session, which she said is“ a safe space ”for girls to share ideas.
“The role of teenage mothers is generally overlooked when people campaign against child marriage. Here I use their voices, their challenges, to discourage young girls who are not yet married to refrain from sexual activity and early marriage, ”said Maritsa.
Neither boys nor girls can legally marry before the age of 18, according to Zimbabwe’s law passed after the Constitutional Court in 2016 struck down an earlier law allowing girls to marry at 16.
Nonetheless, the practice remains widespread in this economically struggling southern African country, where about 30% of girls are married before they turn 18, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund.
Child marriage is rampant across Africa, and growing poverty amid the COVID-19 pandemic has increased pressure on families to marry their young daughters.
For some poor families in Zimbabwe, marrying a young girl means less burden, and the dowry paid by the husband is often “used by families as a means of survival,” according to Girls Not Brides, an organization campaigning to end child marriages.
Some religious sects encourage girls as young as 10 to marry much older men for “spiritual counseling”, while some families, to avoid “shame”, force girls to engage in sex before. marriage to marry their boyfriend, according to the organization.
Maritsa, through her association called the Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium, hopes to increase the confidence of married and unmarried girls through martial arts lessons and the discussions that follow.
Zimbabwe’s ban on public gatherings imposed as part of strict lockdown measures last week to try to slow an unprecedented spike in new COVID-19 infections forced Maritsa to suspend sessions, but she hopes to resume as soon as the lock will be released.
“From being desperate, young mothers feel more empowered… being able to use their stories to dissuade other girls from falling into the same trap,” said Maritsa, who said she started the project in 2018 after seeing her friends leaving school to get married.
Some, like her best friend, Pruzmay Mandaza, 21, are now considering going back to school, although her husband forced her to resign as the association’s vice-president and prevented her from participating in the training. of taekwondo.
Inside the beautifully decorated little house adorned with Maritsa’s medals and photos, her parents bake juice and cookies for the girls – their sacrifice to help their daughter’s efforts.
“I can only accommodate 15 people per session because the only support I get is from my parents,” Maritsa said. “My dad is a small farmer, my mom is a full time housewife, but they sacrifice what little they have for what I want to accomplish.”
“He’s my jogging partner,” she added, referring to her father.
Taekwondo is not very popular in soccer-mad Zimbabwe, but there are pockets of vocational training schools and backyards.
Despite her limited resources, Maritsa is committed to her mission.
Early marriages could increase as COVID-19 pushes children away from school and deepens poverty, women’s groups warn. Even some of the participants in the Maritsa home sessions seem to have different priorities.
“We have to know how to keep our husbands happy, that’s what’s important,” said Privilege Chimombe, a 17-year-old mother of two who had her first child at 13 and was abandoned by her husband, after a recent session.
“These are the perceptions that we have to fight,” Maritsa replied. “It’s difficult, but you have to do it.”