Following the recent death of Anna Machaya (14) at the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church shrine, Zimbabwe Gender Commission has descended on the church as part of its investigations into matters surrounding harmful religious practices which perpetuate sexual exploitation and abuse of women, a local weekly has revealed.
The commission’s chief executive officer, Ms Virginia Muwanigwa, confirmed the ongoing investigations and said they are not limited to one denomination, but the apostolic sect sector as a whole.
She said they would soon publish a Government Gazette notice inviting members of the public to make submissions.
Anna Machaya recently died while giving birth at the Mafararikwa Shrine, resulting in the arrest of her ‘‘husband’’ —Hatirarame ‘‘Evans’’ Momberume — on murder and sleeping with a minor charges. Momberume is in remand prison awaiting trial.
“In terms of the Zimbabwe Gender Commission Act, we are mandated to investigate systematic barriers prejudicial to gender equality, gender equity or gender mainstreaming.
A systemic barrier means any barrier, practice, custom, law or other impediments prejudicial to the achievement of gender equality, gender equity or gender main-streaming.
“Institutionalisation of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and child marriages constitute a major barrier to the realisation of full gender equality.
The harmful effects of child marriages in inhibiting their full potential and exposing them to GBV and STIs as well as HIV cannot be overemphasised.
“The Commission has over the past years been seized with the matters surrounding harmful religious practices which perpetuate sexual exploitation and abuses of women and child marriages as part of its broader mandate.
The investigation is, therefore, not limited to Marange as a church, nor the parties involved in the Anna Machaya case only,” said Ms Muwanigwa.
Probed on their preliminary findings, Ms Muwanigwa said: “From our preliminary inquiry targeted at Johanne Marange Apostolic Church, we observed that there is strict adherence to the literal interpretation of the Bible which places women as people of lower standing to men insofar as religious processes and rites are concerned.
Women have no right to address the church gathering and cannot occupy leadership positions. It is this ideology which breeds various other gender rights violations.
“The sector is closed to the outside world. Only parishioners are privy to the church rites and protocols. The members are highly indoctrinated and do not reveal the information to outsiders.”
She added: “We also observed the existence of several other practices outside child marriages which severely impair the dignity of women and young girls including, but not limited to compulsory virginity testing, betrothal, pledging, forced marriages and denying women access to sexual and reproductive health rights.
“The identified rights violations are rooted in the beliefs, doctrines and ideology and require involvement of the members, leadership and protocols to try and trigger change so that the right to religious beliefs is exercised in line with the confines of the Constitutional imperatives on gender equality and women’s rights.”
She said although at policy level the church leadership has expressed interest in abiding by the country’s laws as its leader (High Priest Noah Taguta) has on many occasions denounced child marriages, the practice still persists unabated.
In a recent interview, Marange Apostolic Church co-ordinator and spokesperson, Mr Nyasha Marange, said: “We do not condone child marriages.”
‘‘When individuals commit offences, the church will not protect them. We have suffered a lot of bad publicity because of individuals’ misdeeds and I want to reiterate that our High Priest, Noah Taguta, always speaks strongly against child marriages.
“We are a law-abiding church and we urge the police to thoroughly investigate all child abuse cases and bring all perpetrators to book.”
However, Ms Muwanigwa, said: “Most members interviewed who are part of the church were not willing to divulge information. Women who are part of the church are afraid to be seen talking to outside people for fear of being labelled sell-outs.
“Secondary information obtained so far points to the existence of child marriages in the sect. We, however, want to make it categorically clear that the practice is not peculiar to the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church alone as several other religious denominations, indigenous and non-indigenous, have rites and practices which breed child marriages and forced marriages.
It is also important to note that the practice has also surged even outside the faith-based sectors. The Covid-19 pandemic and the socio-economic situation has worsened the situation in a big way.
“Coming back to Marange, there was information to the effect that the culture and norms of the church have become so engrossed that even children now voluntarily give themselves away to men. Poverty is also a driver in these state of affairs.
‘‘Child marriages have become so common in the Marange area that even those who are not followers of Johanne Marange Church are also now into the harmful cultural practice,” said Mrs Muwanigwa.
She called for continuous engagement of all stakeholders and religious leaders to end child marriages.
“There is need to address the current legislative regime with regards to marriages of young persons, sexual intercourse with minors and harmonisation of the customary and civil marriages.
Currently there is no harmony between the Marriages Act, Domestic Violence Act and Criminal Law Codification and Reform Act,” she said.