Breathing life into Zimbabwe’s new Constitution

  • Douglas Coltart

Two courageous young Zimbabwean women, called Loveness and Ruvimbo, recently went head-to-head with patriarchy – and won!

With the assistance of Veritas, one of IRI’s local partners, the two women took a case to the Constitutional Court of Zimbabwe challenging the legality of child marriage. In a landmark judgment, the country’s highest court ruled that child marriage is inconsistent with the Constitution and struck down the laws that permitted it. While, of course, the global struggle to break the shackles of patriarchy is far from over (not least in Zimbabwe), the abolition of child marriage in Zimbabwe represents a huge victory for advancing the rights of the girl child.

In a strong condemnation of the State’s resistance to reforming the legislation, the Constitutional Court stated:

In light of the overwhelming empirical evidence on the harmful effects of early marriage on girl children, no law which authorises such marriage can be said to do so to protect “the best interests of the child”. … Resistance to the liberation of the girl child from the shackles of child marriage and its horrific consequences based on conceptions of sex discrimination is against the best interests of the girl child served by the enforcement of the fundamental rights enshrined in … the Constitution. 

The case demonstrates the potentially transformative role that Zimbabwe’s new Constitution can play in the country. It was this vision of a transformative constitution that motivated another two young Zimbabweans – one Justice Mavedzenge and yours truly – to write a book about the Constitution’s Declaration of Rights in the hope that it might influence the development of our country’s human rights jurisprudence. That book was referred to by the Constitutional Court in its unanimous decision in Loveness and Ruvimbo’s case.

For a constitution to be given life, it must be put into practice, respected, and adhered to by people. If not, it will remain a paper tiger. It is this cause – empowering Zimbabweans to breathe life into their Constitution – around which IRI’s work in Zimbabwe revolves. Last year, IRI conducted a nation-wide public opinion poll which explores Zimbabweans’ perceptions of their new Constitution, establishing, for the very first time, a baseline which seeks to measure constitutionalism in Zimbabwe. Currently, IRI partners with several local organizations to conduct civic education on the rights and responsibilities enshrined in the new Constitution. IRI works closely with both rights-holders and duty-bearers at the local government level to facilitate effective governance that is responsive to the needs of residents, conscious always of the need to include marginalized groups such as women and youth. Additionally, as part of the Uhuru Fellowship, I am also writing a paper (forthcoming) which focuses on the role of the Constitution in improving service delivery and citizen participation in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe’s Constitution has the potential to advance human rights, open up democratic space, address injustices, and improve people’s lives. The Zimbabwe government, the judiciary, and organizations like IRI and its partners have a role to play. But, ultimately, it’s up to us – Zimbabweans, young and old – to take the lead from people like Loveness and Ruvimbo and stand up, stand together, and demand the implementation our Constitution.


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