She was the brightest girl in her class, and 13-year-old Maureen dreamed of an education that would get her out of the poverty that bogged down her hometown of Mudzi, Mashonaland, Zimbabwe. Her parents promised to pay her tuition – but her family hit hard times.
Instead, her father married off the young adolescent to a middle-aged man.
“When my parents told me about the marriage I couldn’t believe it, because they had always given me the impression that I was their most intelligent child and I would pursue my studies,” the child told the Guardian this month. “The man was abusive, he called me names and beat me several times, especially after I lost my baby.”
She is far from alone. Approximately one-third of all girls in Zimbabwe end up as child brides, often traded for dowries so small the girls find them insulting. For instance, another Zimbabwean family gave their 14-year-old girl to an older man for less than 50 cents.
But economically, families see more value in receiving even a pittance than from investing in their daughters’ human capital: educating them, teaching them skills, and preparing them to find employment … or even to finish raising them. The Guardian reported the reason:
Child marriage in Zimbabwe is often driven by poverty. Dowries offer a welcome, if brief, respite from penury in poor households struggling to weather a vicious economic crisis. …
With a drought looming and disposable incomes depleted from galloping inflation, poor families are more likely to exchange their daughter for very little.
Since girls’ economic prospects are dim, one girl profiled had been traded for a goat.
A spokesperson with the nonprofit Girls Not Brides confirmed that a driving factor in this unseemly trade is that “economic opportunities are severely limited.”
Yet, in addition to the many physical and psychological harms it inflicts on the young girls, child marriage also creates a vicious circle. Young girls, robbed of the opportunity to develop their full potential, find themselves locked into a system of intergenerational poverty and abuse.
Robbing the communities of their unique contributions further degrades the local economy. The World Bank measured 12 African nations, equaling roughly half the continent’s population, and estimated that child marriage costs them $63 billion in lost human capital wealth. This, in turn, primes the next generation of child brides.
While the Guardian accurately assessed the link between economic incentives and child marriage, the UK’s most significant leftist daily omitted the role collectivism played in destroying Zimbabwe’s economy. The Financial Times recorded the carnage.
Real per capita incomes have fallen 15 percent since 1980, when Robert Mugabe assumed leadership and initiated a robust program of state economic interventionism. To this day, more than four-in-10 Zimbabweans work for the public sector.
Mugabe also began redistributing farm land in the name of redressing the racial heritage of colonialism. In 2000, he intensified the program to full-blown land expropriation – a move recently contemplated by leaders of neighboring South Africa. Within eight years, agricultural output fell by two-thirds and the GDP nearly halved.
Western Christians bear some responsibility for this outcome. In 1978, the World Council of Churches gave Robert Mugabe’s ZANU guerrilla fighters £42,000 (the equivalent of $304,635,267 U.S. today).
After 37 years – and hyperinflation that reached 79.6 billion percent in 2008 – Mugabe’s reign ended in a military coup in 2017. The EU stepped in to offer its assistance to the new leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa. At the time, Ibrahim Anoba, editor of African Liberty, offered his own program to help Zimbabwe prosper on the Acton Institute’s Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website, focused on unleashing the power of the free market to develop the creative potential of all citizens.
Instead, President Mnanagagwa has attempted to tax Zimbabwe into prosperity.
Over the Christmas holiday, he hiked the fuel tax, raising the price of gasoline to $12.60 a gallon. Many of those who work in South Africa but visit home for the holidays lost their jobs, because they could not afford to return to work.
His intervention further depressed the economy – increasing unemployment, deepening the misery of his citizens, and multiplying the likelihood that more young girls will end up in a forced and abusive marriage.
If only Zimbabwe had a gilet jaunes movement.
Young girls being essentially sold into a life of servitude embody the human toll of bad economic decisions. The work of the Acton Institute in teaching the economic principles that further human flourishing is not vapidly academic, not merely theoretical. It affects the lives of the most vulnerable people on the planet for better – or worse.
(Photo credit: Ferdinand Reus. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)