IN Zimbabwe, some girls are forced to marry as young as the age of 10 because of poverty or for traditional or religious reasons.
One Zimbabwean teenager is using the sport of taekwondo to give girls from a poor community a fighting chance to have a better life. Natsiraishe Maritsa has been a fan of taekwondo since she was very young.
Taekwondo is a Korean martial art.
Today, the 17-year-old holds taekwondo lessons outside her parents’ home in the poor settlement of Epworth. The area is about 15 kilometers south of the capital, Harare.
“Not many people do taekwondo here, so it’s fascinating for the girls, both married and single,” Maritsa said. “I use it to get their attention.” Children as young as four follow her instructions to stretch, kick, strike and punch.
After class, the group talks about the risks of child marriage.
Newly married girls led one recent discussion. One by one, they describe extreme abuse they have experienced in their marriages. They describe being raped and being hungry.
“We are not ready for this thing called marriage. We are just too young for it,” Maritsa told The Associated Press. She described her small group as “a safe space” for the girls to share ideas.
“I use their voices, their challenges, to discourage those young girls not yet married to stay off early sexual activity and marriage,” Maritsa said.
Zimbabwe law says boys and girls cannot legally marry until they reach the age of 18. That law was passed in 2016. Child marriage, however, is widespread in the southern African nation.
For some poor families, the reason is an economic one. Marrying off a young daughter means fewer costs. The rights group Girls Not Brides says the bride price paid by husbands of these girls is “used by families as a means of survival.”
An estimated 30 percent of girls in Zimbabwe are married before they reach 18, the United Nations Children’s Fund says. Rising poverty during the Covid-19 pandemic has increased pressures on families around the world to marry off their young daughters.
Maritsa’s group is called Vulnerable Underaged People’s Auditorium. She started the project in 2018 after seeing her friends leave school for marriage. She hopes to increase the confidence of both married and unmarried girls through the martial arts lessons and discussions.
She accepts 15 students in each lesson, she said.
“The only support I get is from my parents.” After class, her parents usually provide fresh juice and sweets.
Zimbabwe recently announced a ban on public gatherings. The measure is meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The ban has forced Maritsa to suspend her lessons, but she hopes to restart as soon as the country’s lockdown is lifted.
Maritsa said, “From being hopeless, the young mothers feel empowered…being able to use their stories to dissuade other girls from falling into the same trap.”