ActionAid chief: Africa’s ‘child marriage’ is actually rape

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, of ActionAid and African Union Goodwill Ambassador to End Child Marriage. [MattTempest/Flickr]

Ahead of this year’s European Union Development Days, the NGO ActionAid is focussing on the issue of inequality, with the launch of the report, The Price of Privilege.

Nzaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is the Chair of ActionAid International, and the African Union Goodwill Ambassador to End Child Marriage in Africa.

Gumbonzvanda spoke to’s Matthew Tempest ahead of the EU Development Days (15-16 June).

ActionAid is concentrating their efforts at this EDD on the issue of inequality – why is that?

It’s become very evident to us that the issue of poverty is linked to inequality and human rights. We spent the past five years being in the negotiations for the Sustainable Development Goals, it was evident what we were measuring around the [preceeding] Millennium Development Goals was numbers – reductions in infant mortality, an increase in the number of girls in school.

But what we were not analysing was the numbers of those still not accessing their basic human rights. That’s actually where the critical issues are – inequalities of gender, class . the economy, the disabled and the indigenous. This conversation also enables us to move from ‘averages’, because when we work in ‘averages’, you can be in the comfort of the number, but you are not able to touch the real, core, root causes of poverty.

We also feel the issue of inequality is critical for us to be able to governments’ priorities. Because a conversation on inequalities demands a reprioristisation of legislation, of resource-allocation, and a conversation on how resources and revenues are generated, and on growth.

We know the EU focuses on economic growth, but with inequalities, we can ask ‘who is left behind?’ It enables us to explore alternatives.

The work ActionAid has done on inequalities has focused on land rights. We know that is very sensitive, especially with the focus on the private sector. We have seen in Bagamoyo [in Tanzania], we have seen the privatisation of land, what does it mean for the livelihoods of the people who live there, and the environment? We’ve done lots of work on rethinking the policy, and the contract that existed.

What about gender inequalities?

That remains at the core of the SDGs.

And wearing your other hat, as AU Goodwill Ambassador to End Child Marriage, what are the priorities in Africa?

In my home country of Zimbabwe, 30% of all girls are married before the age of 18.

The Africa Union spent time working on “Agenda 2063” – 50 years into the future! It came up with a commitment that we want a prosperous at Africa, at peace with itself. For me it’s very clear, that for that we need good governance, and for that we need women to be involved, and their rights protected.

Because unless we have peace in the Sudan, in DR Congo, in Mali, in Central African Republic, we cannot achieve these development agendas we are talking about.

And then decision-making. It’s about more than womens’ involvement in the political process. Yes, we have only had two female heads of state in Africa – Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia  and Catherine Samba-Panza in Central African Republic, but we need more women in decision-making, in parliament but it has to be more than public office. We need women in local authorities, in private sector on the boards, heading water and school committees…decisions around public services.

The third issue is violence against women. We have unacceptable levels. We are working on ending child marriage, we have an pan-African campaign on that.

I say we should never call it ‘marriage’ because we are giving legal recognition to rape, we are sanitising it, a gross abuse of girls. This is sexual abuse and forced labour. A modern form of slavery.

The statistics are clear – the highest number of people at risk of HIV are adolescent girls. The highest number of people dying of preventable maternal deaths are aged 14-20 years old.

It means our daughters are dying.

The highest number of people dropping out of school are that age. So it’s a very targeted intervention and if it’s successful, it could break the cycle of poverty.

Finally, the economy is crucial. I always say ‘Africa is filthy rich. It is filthy, damned rich.’ Undiplomatic language but we have oil, diamonds, minerals and a deep culture and creativity.

And yet, the African woman is licking a spoon. A spoon she does not even own. She can barely survive. She queues for food aid, her sons are crossing the Mediterranean in a sinking boat, she has to live in a refugee camp. It’s wrong.

In Africa, we can mitigate natural catastrophes, but with man-made catastrophes, it’s a question of accountability.

What about tax justice, another issue of inequality?

Aid for Africa is so much reliant on tax justice – in the EU and around the world. And the problem is, women are not in the key sectors driving our [African] economies. Women are not in the mining sector, to raise questions around procurement, around tenders, around contracts.

We have very few women in the energy sector, which is so crucial. Very few women in the technology sector, whilst Africa is a growing space for mobile telephony.

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