Entering Noah Taguta’s homestead, Johanne Marange Apostolic Church’s High Priest, there is neither telling how many wives he has or who among the female folk you will meet is his wife, daughter or granddaughter. This also goes for many of his followers.
Some take in girls as young as nine into the custody of either their mothers or older wives until the onset of puberty from whence they assume their full responsibilities as wives, says Peter Marange who lives in the church’s stronghold in Mafararikwa, about 100 kilometres southwest of Mutare.
In line with their superstitious beliefs, to hasten the sexual maturity of prepubescent girls, “the older wives fondle the breasts of these girls to trigger puberty,” Marange said.
As the nation recommits itself to ending domestic violence the church is getting attention over claims it promotes and tolerates the taking on of child brides who local communities say has a morally reprehensible spinoff in high maternal mortality as the young girls are dropping dead like flies in unregistered backyard healing shrines as it prohibits access to competent professional medical services.
Anti-Domestic Violence Council Chairperson Kelvin Hazangwi notes that Zimbabwe’s maternal mortality is around 960 deaths for every 100 000 which is higher than the Southern African Development Community’s average while it can be blamed on HIV and AIDS, distant health delivery centres particular blame goes to unsafe pregnancies among child brides.
Fingering male members of the sect as not only liable but responsible for the deaths of the young women in the church he said while HIV and AIDS, unsafe pregnancies and inaccessible health centres also contributed to the ugly statistics it was ultimately men’s decision making role that keep the girl in harm’s way.
He added that since no woman can get pregnant on their own they also control decisions that make the pregnancy safe. “Every pregnancy must be safe and wanted,” he said.
Reviled by women’s and child rights organisations the 1.2 million member strong white garment church is however a Zanu – PF protected ally.
In the face of waning mass electoral appeal President Robert Mugabe and his deputy Joyce Mujuru among other senior party officials have been patronizing the church for their political survival – a muted warning to government ministries and departments to let them be.
But Mutasa women have had it with the church!
In direct opposition to Vice President Joyce Mujuru’s police directive to leave them alone the women, during a community dialogue meeting hosted by Padare / Men’s Forum on Gender at Manica Bridge in Mutasa district recently, expressed ire at authorities failing to censor the white garment church’s continued marriage of underage girls whom they claim are mostly dying during labour at the illegal shrines.
Pastor Memory Chindewere, Padare’s Manicaland Chapter General Secretary also explained to the meeting, which had more than 10 village heads including one in whose village was the shrine who is also a member of the church – Village head Mutasa, that the risk of maternal mortality was particularly high for the child brides because their bodies would not be fully developed to either safely carry a pregnancy to term or experience a normal delivery.
The 16th of July issue of The Daily News reported the then acting president Joyce Mujuru, speaking at an invitational incoming Passover ceremony at Johanne Marange’s Mafararikwa shrine, as warning the police against forcing members of the apostolic faith to have their children take mandatory immunisation.
“The police are urged to work with the established authorities within the church to ensure we do not have cases of church members dragged to clinics for their children to be immunised,” she said.
Because of their powerful tacit alliance and as if to spite their detractors Chief Chiduku, a Zanu – PF senator and member of the sect was last year quoted by 1st of March 2011 issue of Newsday as saying there was nothing wrong with marrying off underage girls during a Parliamentary Portfolio Committee meeting.
Regardless of all international conventions the country signed on and country’s own legal frameworks like the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform ) Act which forbids the practice as even criminal to the consenting parents and the one marrying anyone below 16 this passed without censure from senate, parliament or government.
An October 2011 study by Maureen Sibanda for Research and Advocacy Unit (RAU) entitled Married too soon: Child Marriage in Zimbabwe noted that the church as the worst perpetrator of the practice which is replete with reproductive health risks for the young girls.
Even the Herald on the 10th of October in 2009, revealed that the church had the highest number of maternal deaths.
A nurse at Marange Clinic who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of victimisation said some of the child brides die of severe bleeding or ruptured uteruses as their young bodies would be immature for full reproductive functions.
“Some of the girls only experience their first menstrual period after their first birth,” he said.
However since the 8th of October, the inaugural International Day of the Girl Child the church has been roundly condemned for the practise with this years’ theme also focusing on ending child marriages, a form of domestic violence.
Teresa Dumba, a gender and HIV activist described members of the church who find young girls sexually attractive as ‘shameless paedophiles’ but Taurai Nyandoro a local social commentator while offended by the practice is unsure over its classification saying the definition may be foreign to Zimbabwean culture.
For Garcia Duru, a psychologist and lecturer with Zimbabwe Open University he was more comfortable to describe it more as religious stupor, the kind that led Carl Max to equate religion with opium.
“Religion,” said Duru, “can make people absurd.” Some of the absurdities, he added, can come in many forms to even include self-destructive behaviours but the shortcoming of the white garment apostolic church was in this light was sexually exploiting children.
As a group, he said, they do not see the nation’s objection to their practice which will only require an outsider to work with them towards abolishing the practice through behaviour modification and not confrontation which he said would only worsen the plight of young girls.
Quoting a frustration aggressive theory he said confrontation strengthened resistance and may actually backfire as “in frustration, the punch bag becomes the child,” Duru said.
His views are at logger heads with the approach of many gender and child rights activists who take a more confrontational approach, the most aggressive of whom has been Betty Makoni the founder of Girl Child Network (GCN).
Makoni first rescued a 10-year-old girl from her ‘husband’ with the help of the police in 2003 following a tip-off. She went on to rescue 1,500 children trapped in these marriages by 2008 when they were forced to stop their rescue missions by the police commissioner general Augustine Chihuri.
GCN estimates that up to 8,000 girls a year are made child brides and as many as 100,000 girls, teenagers and women are living as modern-day sex slaves across the country because they were ‘married’ when they were young.
Memory Kachambwa a gender consultant while she concurs that the sect is responsible many cases of maternal mortality considering that they are higher in Manicaland province which has the highest number of the church’s membership also holds government to account for the high maternal maternity for failing to invest towards women’s right to safe delivery.
She noted that apart from insufficient clinics there is a skills gap in the available health delivery centres as a result of government’s freeze on recruitments. She blamed decision makers’ lack of appreciation of what women go through.
An emotional Pastor Charles Zhanje of the Bapstist Convention of Zimbabwe said the apostolic church’s leadership was manipulating freedom of worship to be oppressive. Describing maternal mortality as ‘slaughter of women and girls’ said God created human beings with mental, spiritual and psychological needs which cannot all be addressed at a spiritual level.
Padare / Enkundleni’s founder Jonah Gokova said the church needs to appreciate the role women have played in refusing women health.
He said while men largely do not want to take responsibility they impregnate women and make decisions that do not protect women.
A local educationist who requested anonymity said if the risk of maternal mortality were to be transferred to the unborn child’s biological fathers no man would refuse responsibility for impregnating women or risk their life by referring their wives to back yard healing shrines.
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