Zimbabwean government turns 'blind eye' on religious sect's child marriages

By Brezh Malaba
Photography by Cynthia R. Matonhodze

April 8, 2024

A Zimbabwean woman and former child bride. She now lives with her two children after enduring physical and financial abuse.

Tambudzai Moyo was just 16 when she married a man more than twice her age.

Her husband was a 43-year-old member of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church in Nyamadzawo village in eastern Zimbabwe. He already had two other wives, making Moyo, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, wife number three.

The Apostolic sect represents the largest religious group in the country and has some of the highest rates of child marriage among girls of any religious sect – even as Zimbabwe’s government is strengthening laws banning marriage for people under 18.

Marriage and Union Rates Among Young Women by Religious Affiliation

At 31.4%, the Apostolic Sect records the highest rate of women aged 14-19 who are currently married or in union across different religious groups in Zimbabwe.

Despite these laws, and the country’s obligations under UN agreements, the Zimbabwean government has been lax in preventing the practice, while maintaining close ties to the church and its leaders. Officials shift responsibility to policing and enforcement, while key government leaders frequent church events and give money to the community and its leaders. As a consequence of this inaction, young girls continue to fall victim to child marriage – impeding their development, health and basic human rights.

CCIJ asked representatives of the government, the church and the police to comment on this pattern.

Justice Minister Ziyambi Ziyambi said the government is working to strengthen laws preventing child marriage, but added that the enforcement of those laws lies with the police.

Abraham Mafararikwa, a baptist in the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church and a community leader, denied accusations that the church lacks seriousness in safeguarding the education of girls. He said Johanne Marange Apostolic Church has built many schools countrywide, showing that it prioritized education.

And Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi, the national police spokesperson, said the problem is that some victims of child marriage do not make reports to the police, so they cannot pursue criminal cases.

Because many of these marriages are performed under customary law and without official paperwork – and are widely accepted in the church community – they can be difficult to prevent. Many young girls, often in desperate circumstances, have no idea it is an illegal practice.

Moyo, who is now 29, said she should have sensed there was something wrong.

“When he courted me, he sent another man to convince me to marry him,” Moyo said. “When I look back, I realize how strange the whole courtship was.”

It was shortly after Moyo’s parents had died. As an orphan from Manicaland Province, where rural children are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty as in urban areas, she was in a position many girls in her region may face: thinking the only way to survive Zimbabwe’s volatile economy was to find a husband.

But far from making things easier for her, the marriage plunged her into further anguish.

“The men who practice polygamous marriage in the (Johanne Marange Apostolic) Church usually expect each wife to fend for herself,” she said. “So I would look for my own food and clothes.”

After she gave birth to her second child, local nonprofit group Simukai Child Protection Program came to her rescue. The staff taught her how to sew clothes, mostly school uniforms.

“When I had learned the skill and felt empowered enough to stand on my own, I then left the marriage,” she said. Moyo said she stopped going to the church three years ago. Something inside her heart had died.

“The church must do something to prevent this problem.”

Gogo Sarah Masaiwana is a midwife in the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church. She says she has delivered more than 450 babies since 1998. Many of the mothers she has helped are underage, some as young as 12.

She delivers babies using these tools in the kitchen at her home in kwaMapfunde, in Marange. She says none have died in her care.

At the center of religion and politics

The Marange region of Manicaland is richly endowed with diamonds, but the rural communities face high rates of hunger and poverty. The church holds vast power in this area, where officials are members and publicly defend its practices, and many institutions – such as schools – are built by the religious sect. In interviews with villagers in the area, it was clear they are fearful to speak out.

Child marriage thrives at the confluence of traditional cultural attitudes, religious beliefs of the Apostolic sect and the acquiescence of a government that prioritizes votes over social justice and its own legislation.

Many government officials are aware these marriages are happening. Discussions in Zimbabwe’s Parliament have addressed laws around child marriage, and naming the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church directly.

Zimbabwe is also a signatory to three international agreements that prohibit forced or child marriage: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and The Convention on the Rights of the Child.

And a successful Constitutional Court challenge in 2014 filed by two Zimbabwean women, each of whom had been married as children, cited three government officials as respondents: the Minister of Justice, Legal & Parliamentary Affairs; the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Gender & Community Development and the Attorney General’s Office. The court deemed it in the public interest to make an order to expressly outlaw child marriage.

In 2021, Sithembiso Nyoni, the Minister of Women’s Affairs, Community, Small and Medium Enterprises, announced an investigation into the case of a 14-year-old girl who died while giving birth at an Apostolic church shrine in Marange. It is unclear at what age she married a 26-year-old member of the Johanne Marange Apostolic sect, but it was with the consent of her parents, who were also members of the church. The husband was charged with murder.

Her parents were arrested and sentenced to nine months in prison, but the sentence was suspended on condition that they instead pay a meager ZW$60,000 fine, equivalent to $4 at the time. Although the parents had deliberately tried to mislead detectives on the child’s correct age by claiming she was 22 years old, they got away with what was widely seen as a lenient sentence.

Police spokesperson Nyathi told the Global Press Journal that, between 2018 and 2021, police handled more than 10,100 cases of people accused of having sexual intercourse with children, but added that it was difficult for police to make arrests over child marriage because there was no law in place that specifically addressed child marriage.

Portia Jeranyama, now 31, is a former child bride who had lived with her grandmother. She was married at 16 to a husband who was 20 when her grandmother was no longer able to take care of her.

In 2022, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa signed a new law banning child marriage: the Marriages Act [Chapter 5:15]. For the first time since Zimbabwe gained its independence from British colonial rule in 1980, the law explicitly stated that a marriage can only take place between adults above the age of 18. It made facilitating the marriage of children, including by contracting, promoting, permitting, allowing or coercing the marriage, a criminal offense.

Despite the new law, reports of these marriages continue, particularly in relation to the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church.

Bureaucratic delays have slowed the creation of a separate law to ensure sexual abuse and exploitation of children under 18 are also criminalized. Without a standalone law, men arrested for sexually exploiting girls cannot be convicted in court. Zimbabwe’s Constitutional Court gave the government until May 25, 2023, to enact such legislation.

The president created a temporary act in January 2024 as a stopgap. And on March 1, 2024, the government announced a Criminal Law amendment raising the age of consent to 18. The bill must still be debated, passed and sent to the president before it can become law.

Mike Murenzvi, a Harare-based public policy commentator, described the government’s lethargic approach to child protection as “justice delayed,” noting that the authorities had dragged their feet for years without crafting the necessary legal protections.

On Nov. 28, 2023, when CCIJ asked Justice Minister Ziyambi why the government had not taken action against faith-based groups such as the Marange Apostolic sect, he replied, “Within the [new] Marriages Act, we outlawed the marriage of anyone below the age of 18. The question of compliance now resides with the law enforcement agencies.”

But for many Zimbabweans, that is simply not good enough.

“We cannot allow politics to overshadow the urgent need to protect our young girls from the horrors of child marriage,” said Obert Masaraure, President of the Amalgamated Rural Teachers’ Union of Zimbabwe (ARTUZ).

“I left because my husband was abusive and wouldn’t allow me to work despite us experiencing terrible periods of hunger in our home. I managed to start selling tomatoes at one point but my husband would beat me for it.”
– Tracy Pangwe, a woman married in her teens

A stolen childhood

When children are forced into marriage, it undermines their development, depriving them of joy, education and opportunities, according to Save the Children, a NGO devoted to improving the lives of children around the world.

“Child marriage forcibly robs girls of their childhood and adolescence, prematurely thrusting them into adult roles and responsibilities for which they are ill-prepared physically, psychologically and emotionally,” said Masaraure.

Though there are a number of reasons child marriage persists, contributing factors are Zimbabwe’s inflation and cost of living problem. In 2023, Zimbabwe recorded the highest food-price inflation in the world, according to the World Bank. A price surge hit the country, worsening a cost-of-living crisis that has left citizens hungry, children malnourished and families struggling for survival.

Many people get their cash through unofficial, or black market, exchanges, as banks often don’t have enough cash and trade at a lower rate. On the black market, even ten of Zimbabwe’s biggest bank note, the ZW$100, can barely buy basic food essentials such as a kilogram of maize grain. This is because the local Zimbabwe dollar is virtually worthless, with the exchange rate at the beginning of December 2023 reaching an astonishing US$1 to ZW$10,000.

When incomes are meager and irregular, families are forced to make difficult decisions. Some of the children must drop out of school owing to a lack of money for tuition fees. Often families may choose to stop paying the fees for girls, who can marry in exchange for a bride price, while boys are more likely to drop out to start working.

“At its worst, child marriage resembles bonded labor or even enslavement, subjecting girls to regular domestic and sexual violence and opening pathways to commercial exploitation,” Masaraure said.

Tracy Pangwe, 25, from the Mafararikwa village in Manicaland Province, said she was repeatedly chased away from school for not having paid tuition fees, despite the Zimbabwean government’s messaging that no child should be turned away from school for non-payment of fees. Frustrated, in secondary school, Pangwe was eventually convinced to agree to an early child marriage.

“A boy in Form 4 proposed love to me, and I accepted,” she said. “After he wrote his Ordinary Level exams, he sent his sisters to fetch me.”

Much to her disappointment, her husband stopped supporting the family. They later divorced.

This disparity between the promises of these marriages and the reality for the girls was repeated among each woman interviewed. They entered the marriage thinking it would provide financial support, but instead were faced with more challenges.

Pangwe said she now understands she was too young to marry, but she said the larger problem of child marriage will be hard to address.

“From the looks of it, the power comes from politics,” Pangwe said.

Chantel Taendesa was married at 14 after she slept with her 17-year-old boyfriend. Now 18, she says she dropped out of school after constantly being taunted by her peers for having sex at a young age.

‘It's traumatic for both the girls and the teachers’

While accurate data on child marriages among members of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church is difficult to access due to a lack of official records of such ceremonies, other data points can indicate patterns. Many advocates for girls’ rights note that when young girls are married, they are likely to drop out of school.

Across the country, more than eight in 10 girls of upper secondary school age (15- to 17-years-old) in households led by members of the Apostolic sect are not attending school, according to the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey, conducted by the Zimbabwe National Statistics Agency. This number represents the highest rate of non-attendance among all religious groups in the government survey.

“You must understand that the individual church members who impregnate underage girls are doing it on their own — not with the blessings of the church,” said Mafararikwa, a baptist in the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church. He said the church is against child marriage and even builds schools to show its support for education.

Still, at one secondary school in Marange – which we cannot name to protect sources’ identities – the number of dropouts was high. In 2023 alone, seven girls in Form 2, three in Form 3 and one in Form 4 got pregnant, according to a teacher whose name is being withheld to protect their identity. That includes girls from 13 to 17 years old.

Every morning, a class register is marked to check attendance. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a student is no longer attending classes, said the teacher.

“It’s one of our biggest nightmares,” the teacher said. “As a school, we document the cases and hand them over to voluntary organizations that handle children’s rights.”

Child poverty rates in Manicaland province

In the rural area of the Mutare district, where the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church headquarters is located, 76% of children under the age 18 are poor. Only 22% of children are poor in the urban Mutare.

Child poverty rates in Manicaland province

Poverty in the region contributes to the pattern, as many school girls are lured by men into abandoning school, according to another teacher, who also asked to remain anonymous.

“They use money to entice the girls, knowing fully well that these children come from poor families,” that teacher said. “Recently, a man based in South Africa came to marry a Form 2 girl. She is barely 15.”

Because the schools in rural areas often don’t have their own student residences and are too far from home to enable daily travel, many students stay at makeshift boarding facilities with little supervision. The facilities lack security and are run independently from the schools, leaving young girls vulnerable to sexual grooming and exploitation.

“As a teacher, this is very painful to witness,” said another teacher, who also requested anonymity, at the school. “Education is supposed to be their greatest instrument for breaking the cycle of abuse and poverty. But when they get pregnant at the age of 13, 14 or 15, as teachers our hearts are broken. It’s traumatic for both the girls and the teachers.”

A store near St. Noah High School in Bocha.

The untouchable church and state

One of the socio-political dynamics at the heart of the problem is the symbiotic relationship between the influential Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, ruling Zanu PF politicians and the police.

Masaraure, the president of the rural teachers union ARTUZ, said politicians “turn a blind eye,” to the practices of the Apostolic faith.

“Research suggests that the lack of effective enforcement of laws against child marriage can be attributed, in part, to the strong political ties between political and religious leaders,” Masaraure said.

In interviews, local villagers were reluctant to openly discuss the role of the church and its connection with sitting politicians, for fear of reprisals.

The ruling Zanu PF, in power since 1980, enjoys cordial relations with church elders. During election years, prominent politicians visit the church at the sprawling St. Noah mission in Mafararikwa and are even allowed to address congregants. The political elites — resplendent in the church’s trademark white, flowing robes — see such occasions as glorious opportunities to garner popular support.

Distribution of population by religion of Zimbabwe

The Apostolic Sect represents the largest segment of religious affiliation in the country.

About 40% of Zimbabwe’s population is part of the Apostolic sect, the largest religious group in the country. During each year’s Passover ceremonies, thousands of pilgrims come from across the country to celebrate together at the church headquarters in Marange. In the pavilion at a football ground where VIP politicians are hosted for Passover by the church elders, a picture showing Mnangagwa and the head of the church, Nimrod Taguta, stood proudly.

Last year, Mnangagwa, Vice President Constantino Chiwenga, cabinet ministers and senior government officials attended the church’s annual Passover services, according to photos and articles. These included Oppah Muchinguri-Kashiri, the Zanu PF national chairman; Monica Mutsvangwa, Zimbabwe’s minister of information, publicity and broadcasting services; and Sekai Nzenza, minister of industry and commerce. Shortly after the appearance, church elders endorsed Mnangagwa’s repeat run for presidency.

Political commentators say the relationship between Mnangagwa’s ruling Zanu PF and the Apostolic sect is mutually beneficial. When the head of state visits, he often donates computers and other goods to the community. In return, the church elders uphold a doctrine of supporting whoever is in power.

“The church elders tell the congregation that we, as a church, vote for the status quo. But that is really a big issue when you really scrutinize it,” said a local villager, who declined to give their name.

A portrait of former church leader Noah Taguta, referred to as St. Noah, hanging next to one of President Emmerson Mnangagwa in the pavilion of St. Noah High School soccer field. President Mnangagwa has addressed members of the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church in this field on numerous occasions.

Even during the Covid-19 pandemic, when a nationwide travel ban was in effect, the church contravened the laws without consequences. Government officials, including Mnangagwa, violated the government’s own public health rules by attending the Passover ceremony in July 2022. Mnangagwa also paid a private visit to Taguta’s family in May 2022, following the death of his father, Noah Taguta, the former church leader.

But the politicians are only part of the challenge. Several community members told CCIJ that police are afraid or unwilling to hold church members to account for their crimes, including to investigate cases of child marriage involving church members.

“A mother went to report a child marriage to the police, but nothing was done to bring the culprit to book,” one villager said, adding that the mother was told she’d gone to the wrong police desk and the case was abandoned. The villager said the community “believes the police were simply scared of investigating the church member.”

In one case, police were slow to lay charges until it became widely publicized, and reports indicate that stigma and shame can often make girls reluctant to come forward. A National Action Plan on Ending Child Marriage from 2019 called for the training and sensitization of the police as part of the steps to enhance compliance with the minimum age requirement.

Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi, the national police spokesperson, said the problem is that some victims of child marriage do not make reports to the police.

“In some instances the parents or guardians of the victims refuse to give statements to the police,” Nyathi said. However, he did not provide a response to questions regarding allegations that church members are seldom arrested because they enjoy political protection from the ruling party, Zanu PF.

Church leaders and government deny complicity

Abraham Mafararikwa, 57, is an influential patriarch who wears two hats – on one hand he is a baptist at the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church at the St. Noah mission, and on the other hand he is a sabhuku (village head).

In rural Zimbabwe’s power matrix, sabhukus are powerful traditional leaders who head the village assembly and the village development committee. They exercise authority over family squabbles, land disputes, cultural infractions and other troubles in the locality.

Mafararikwa, who has 15 children, denied that the church encourages or enables men to marry underage girls, citing the example of his own daughters.

“My youngest daughter is 18 years old. I have four daughters who are married; none of them married below the age of 18,” he said, adding the church works with community volunteers and local NGOs to advise youth to avoid child marriage. He said they speak with parents and urge them to look after their children.

“We have built 57 schools as the Johanne Marange Church, yet some people still say our church doesn’t like education,” he said. The church’s spokesperson said in late 2023 the church has already built more than 30 schools across the country and intended to build a school in every district where the church has congregants. Zimbabwe has 64 districts.

“People tell lies about our faith,” Mafararikwa said.

In response to a question about the church being untouchable due to a perception it enjoys protection from the ruling political party, Mafararikwa said the church’s leaders emphasize to its members that child marriage is illegal.

“If a church member gets in trouble with the law over child marriage, we tell him to go and face the music,” he said. “Nobody is above the law.”

Contacted for comment, Mnangagwa’s spokesperson, George Charamba, said Justice Minister Ziyambi is best placed to respond, because the president only gazetted the January 2024 temporary measures on child protection after the Ministry of Justice had initiated the process.

Ziyambi, who said the enforcement responsibility lies with the police, said the government is drafting new amendments to ensure the definition of a child in the Criminal Code is aligned with the constitutional definition. He added that the new Marriage Act is also designed to close that gap.

“What we were trying to do was to make sure that we comply with the Constitutional Court judgment that said a child is somebody below the age of 18, yet our Criminal Code set it at 16,” Ziyambi said. “Due to this two-year age difference, these children were not enjoying the rights in the Constitution. That is what we’re trying to correct.”

Attorney General Virginia Mabhiza said the new legislation also scraps a controversial legal provision that allowed social workers to assess whether a case of underage pregnancy warranted prosecution, such as cases involving two minors married while underage. The reliance on social workers could mean that their cultural or personal associations, such as with the church, would influence whether cases would go to the courts.

The government now says social workers should not wield such powers; instead, it is the Prosecutor General who must exercise such discretion, although social workers could be consulted for guidance. Research indicates, however, that social workers could play a stronger role in engaging with church communities and advocating against child marriage.

“I got married at 16 when I was only in Form 3. I spoiled my life for myself so it hurts me that my child seems to be following in my footsteps.”
– Sibongile Mukwananzi, 42, a Nyamadzawo Village resident who advocates against child marriage

$20 payment for a child bride

Sibongile Mukwananzi, 42, who volunteers in the Marange villages as a defender of girls’ rights, is hailed as a hero by many in her community. Instead of waiting for the government or law enforcement to act, she takes matters into her own hands.

A tall matronly figure with an unwavering gaze, she speaks passionately about the importance of teaching girls and boys alike why it matters to keep away from sexual activity and instead focus on school and income-generating projects.

Mukwananzi, who married a 26-year-old man at 16, describes herself as a “community care worker” who educates children to avoid entering marriage too young.

“The sad story is that the children of the Apostolic sect leaders are going to school, but the children of their followers are falling into this trap of early marriage,” she said, adding that when a girl is suspected of being sexually active, her parents may force her to be married.

“The men pay lobola (bride price) as low as $20 and take away the girl,” she said. “These men can just pitch up at your home and announce that they have taken your child. Just like that!”

That US$20 figure was confirmed by three sources, who told CCIJ that girls as young as 12 have been married for a similar cost, in transactions presided over by clan leaders.

Mukwananzi said she doesn’t hesitate to barge into any home when she hears word of early child pregnancy.

“I don’t like child marriage. It ruined my life,” she said.

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Credit: Serena Stelitano

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Nyamadzawo Village in Marange.

This investigation was produced with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy.

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