Developmental Social Work: a Promising Practice to Address Child Marriage in Zimbabwe



The paper advances the role of social work in addressing child marriage in Zimbabwe. It notes that despite child marriage being one of the major social problems in Zimbabwe, and a child rights concern, there is limited social work professional action and interventions to address this challenge, particularly in the government Department of Social Welfare, where there are no interventions that seek to directly prevent or address child marriage. The paper calls for a paradigm shift from remedial social work interventions that dominate social work practice in this department and generally in Zimbabwe. These traditional approaches lack the capacity to address the structural causes of social problems such as child marriage. To that end, the paper proffers developmental social work practice due to its strength to address structural issues, pursue social justice, promote active participation and strengthen prevailing coping mechanisms and poverty alleviation.


Child marriage Social work Zimbabwe Human rights Girls 


Child marriage, also known as early marriage, is a marriage of a person below the age of 18 years (United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) 2012). This form of ‘marriage’ is considered a serious human rights violation and is associated with negative implications such as gender-based violence, transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, birth complications, loss of educational opportunities and poverty (UNICEF 2005, 2012; Nour 2009; Bayisenge 2010; Sibanda 2011). Child marriage is a major global concern, especially in the global South, where its prevalence is significantly higher than in the rest of the world (Mathur et al. 2003; UNICEF 2012). Globally, an estimated 10 million child marriages occur every year (UNICEF 2012). As Workineh et al. (2015: online) bemoans, ‘in the world 10 million girls under the age of 18 marry each year that is around 833,333 a month 192,307 a week 27,397 a day 19 every minute or, around one girl every three seconds’. These statistics indicate a widespread social problem that calls for concerted efforts, increased attention and action (Mathur et al. 2003; Nour 2009; Svanemyr 2012). It is crucial to highlight that boys are also affected by child marriage; however, it mainly affects girls due to gender inequalities and social norms that marginalise and oppress women and girls (Mathur et al. 2003). Hence, there is a deliberate effort in this paper to discuss child marriage in the context of the girl child.

As with other countries in the sub-Saharan region such as Lesotho, Swaziland, Zambia and Tanzania, the rate of child marriage in Zimbabwe is very high (UNICEF 2005). Approximately 21% of children (mostly girls) are married before the age of 18 in Zimbabwe (Sibanda 2011). The Zimbabwe Demographic Health Survey (a national survey on many social indicators such as health, fertility, education and nutrition) of 2010–2011 reported that 31% of girls in Zimbabwe marry before they reach the age of 18 years; about 15% of these are married before they reach 15 years (Zimbabwe National Statistical Agency (ZIMSTATS) 2010). In most countries in sub-Saharan Africa such as Malawi, Zambia and Botswana, the incidence of child marriage is slightly decreasing (UNICEF 2012). On the contrary, in Zimbabwe, the prevalence of child marriage is rising (Sibanda 2011). For example, the national census statistics indicates that in the year 1999, child marriage was 5% and it dropped to 2% in 2002. Nonetheless, from 2002 to 2012, it has phenomenally increased to 22% (Ibid ). This sharp rise can be explained by the protracted and increasing socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe which started around the year 2000 and has created a humanitarian crisis and increased the prevalence of poverty and vulnerability among many families (Gandure 2009). As the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA) (2012), p.11) argues, ‘humanitarian crises exacerbate girls’ vulnerability. Some parents genuinely believe that marriage will secure their daughters’ future, while others see their daughters as a burden or even a commodity’. This observation is supported by several pieces of research from across the world which have demonstrated that child marriage is strongly linked to poverty and limited livelihood opportunities (see, for example, Sibanda 2011; International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) 2008, 2011).

Notwithstanding the fact that child marriage is one of the major social problems in Zimbabwe, there are limited social work interventions directly addressing this challenge, particularly in the Department of Social Welfare, the largest employer of social workers in Zimbabwe and the government department responsible for social and child welfare services. Most of the interventions that address child marriage in Zimbabwe are implemented by local and international non-governmental organisations. These organisations implement interventions such as livelihood strengthening, community dialogues and sensitisations, advocacy for policy reforms and child rights, payment of school fees and parenting clubs. However, in spite of most of these interventions being developmental in nature, they have limited reach. We argue that one of the major limitations of the Department of Social Welfare in addressing child marriage is traditional social work and remedial interventions which are the core interventions in this department.

In light of the limited social work interventions that address child marriage in Zimbabwe, especially in the Department of Social Welfare, this paper proposes developmental social work practice to better address child marriage. Developmental social work ‘is a type of social work which diverges from the residual, service-oriented approach directed at special categories of people in need to strengths-based, respectful people-centred approaches, which place people in local communities at the centre of development’ (Gray 2002, p.13). In this regard, it provides opportunities such as addressing the structural causes of social problems; it is strength-based and promotes the participation of the service users and other stakeholders (Gray and Lombard 2008).

The Human Rights Imperative to End Child Marriage

The international human rights law is clear on its provisions against child marriage. The right to free and full consent to a marriage is highlighted in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The international law argues that consent cannot be ‘free and full’ when one of the parties is not ‘mature enough’ to make an informed and knowledgeable decision (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948). A child is recognised as a ‘full’ human being not positioned to take certain decisions (Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948). For instance, Article 16.1 of this international law provides that men and women of ‘full age’, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family (ibid). The Convention of the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone below the age of 18. To that end, it is clear that ‘full age’ should be age above 18 (United Nations 1990). Yet a significant number of countries around the world have set the minimum age for marriage with and without parental consent to 16 years or lower (UNFPA 2012). Critics of the international child norms, however, caution against a universalised definition of a child and associating cognitive maturity, decision-making capacity and chronological age as childhood is context-specific and consequently constructed by one’s socio-economic and political realities, local values and cultures.

The Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child, in its General Comment No. 4, however, argued that countries should review and, where necessary, reform their legislation and practice to increase the minimum age for marriage with and without parental consent to 18 years, for both girls and boys (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2013). The Committee has also stressed that in setting the minimum age for marriage, countries must adhere to the entire Convention on the Rights of Children (CRC) and its general principles, including the principles of the best interests of the child as the primary consideration (Article 3), the right to life and maximum survival and development (Article 6) and the respect of children’s evolving capacities (Article 5) and their right to health and education and to participate in decisions which affect their rights (United Nations 1990).

The CRC obliges governments to protect and safeguard children. Its Article 19.1 states that States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child’ (United Nations 1990). Article 24.1 of the same law maintains that States Parties recognise the right of the child to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to facilities for the treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health. States Parties shall strive to ensure that no child is deprived of his or her right of access to such health care services’ (United Nations 1990). More explicitly, Article 24.3 maintains that States Parties shall take all effective and appropriate measures with a view to abolishing traditional practices prejudicial to the health of children’ (United Nations 1990).

Critically, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990), the African law which safeguards the rights of children on the continent, highlights child marriage and the imperative for state parties to address it (Organisation of African Unity 1990). In particular, Article 21 maintains that child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited, and effective action including legislation shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory (Organisation of African Unity 1990). Significantly, the new constitution of Zimbabwe and the recent 2016 constitutional ruling outlaw the marriage of any person below the age of 18 (Parliament of Zimbabwe 2014). Overall, this discussion has illustrated how child marriage is illegal under the international, regional and local laws in Zimbabwe and how it is a human rights violation, which should be addressed to ensure positive outcomes for children, especially girls.

The Major Causes of Child Marriage in Zimbabwe

It is crucial to interrogate the major or underlying causes of child marriage in Zimbabwe in order to critically evaluate the extent to which interventions that are in place to address this problem are managing to address the root causes and how they can be better developed to address these issues. Literature shows that child marriage is an outcome of many factors, which are often interconnected, such as lack of enforcement of laws, limited political will and cultural and religious practices, lack of sexual and reproductive services which leads to early pregnancies, poverty, gender inequalities and religious and traditional practices (see, for example, Workineh et al. 2015; Nour 2009; Bayisenge 2010, ICRW 2011). This paper, however, will only focus on cultural and religious practices, gender inequalities and poverty as they are viewed by several pieces of research as the key drivers (Nour 2009; UNFPA 2012; Sibanda 2011).

Cultural and Religious Practices and Gender Inequalities

In Zimbabwe and other patriarchal societies, women and girls are subjected to deep-rooted cultural norms that assign them a second-class citizen status compared to men and boys within the household, community and society at large (Sibanda 2011). These norms deprive girls of equitable opportunities. In this context, girls and women especially in rural areas have limited opportunities to choose and decide about who and when to marry. Furthermore, girls are predominantly assigned domestic roles, rather than economically productive roles or roles as leaders within their community (Gandure 2009). These domestic roles serve to prepare girls for their set ultimate destiny, which is marriage, when at a mature stage. This maturity is often measured by the ability to undertake these domestic chores and the start of menstruation (Chinyoka and Ganga 2011).

These patriarchal norms also dominate in religious institutions such as churches, where men have control over the lives of girls and women. Some churches have doctrines that impose that girls should get married to men in the church once they reach the puberty stage. For example, Sibanda (2011) notes that the Johanne Marange Apostolic Sect in Zimbabwe is one of the churches that encourage child marriage. This church has over one million followers and substantially contributes to child marriage rates in Zimbabwe (Sibanda 2011). In this polygamous church, it is a religious practice that adult men have the privilege to select any girl they would want to marry and proceed to do so, and girls or other families have limited opportunities or say to resist this practice (Sibanda 2011).

There is evidence of gender discrimination with regard to access to education among girls. Most girls drop out of school because of high education costs and poverty and end up getting married. On the other hand, boys are given a special treatment to continue with their education whilst girls are kept at home waiting for marriage (Mawere 2012). In many cases, parents argue that the girl child will get married and that the boy child will need to support his family; hence, he should get an education and a career. The Gender Parity Index (GPI), a ratio of female to male attendance rates at the primary and secondary levels, shows the magnitude of the gender gap in school attendance as there is remarkably low attendance by girls (ZIMSTATS 2010). Crucially, Gandure (2009) notes that the primary attendance of girls is very high but drastically drops at the secondary level. She also observed that in primary school, the enrolment ratio for boys is lower than that for girls but secondary school enrolment for boys is disproportionally high. As such, Sibanda (2011) suggests that there are limited efforts by both parents and government to support the girl child to face the myriad of challenges that she experiences in her academic journey.


Poverty is one of the major contributors to child marriage in Zimbabwe and across the world. (Mathur et al. 2003; ICRW 2007). Chinyoka and Ganga (2011) observed that many families in poverty especially in rural Zimbabwe ‘marry off’ their children to ensure the financial security of their daughters and to generate income that comes from the payment of bride price. To this effect, child marriage serves as a strategy for families in poverty to ‘do away’ with their girl child whom they consider to be an economic burden, while on the other hand generating income from bride price (Sibanda 2011). It is estimated that an average of seven out of ten girls in Zimbabwe live in abject poverty and drop out of school because of poverty-related factors (Mawere 2012). In a research by Chinyoka and Ganga (2011), p.12) girl learners during focus group discussions were quoted as saying ‘our parents arrange for marriages of their daughters to people of their choice in our culture to get bride wealth and protect purity’. This has become very common in most rural areas due to poverty.

UNFPA (2012) argues that there is a close correlation between economic challenges and child marriage. For example, it notes that due to the economic crisis experienced in Nigeria in the 1990s, there was also a sharp increase in the number of child marriages as families sought financial security. This observation by UNFPA (2012) of the positive correlation between child marriage and economic challenges is instrumental and relevant in analysing the situation across Zimbabwe. The increase in the child marriage rate in Zimbabwe mirrors the prevailing and protracted socio-economic crisis which is increasing poverty and vulnerability among many families (ICRW 2008; Gandure 2009). As earlier noted, child marriage is growing at a time when child marriage rates are dropping in many sub-Saharan African countries. The socio-economic crisis in Zimbabwe is contributing to poverty-related challenges among girls which expose them to child marriage such as lack of food, school fees, housing, education, medical care, sanitation facilities, early pregnancies and intergenerational sex (Chinyoka and Ganga 2011). UNFPA analysis of data across 78 developing countries shows that more than half (54%) of girls in the poorest wealth quintile are into child marriage, compared to only 16% of girls in the richest 20% of households (UNFPA 2012). This indicates the role that poverty plays in providing an environment which results in girls getting married as an economic security strategy.

The Limitations of Social Work Practice in the Department of Social Welfare in Addressing Child Marriage in Zimbabwe

This paper notes that there are two major factors that currently limit social work in the Department of Social Welfare from addressing child marriage. These are how services are organised in this department and the overreliance on traditional social work practices (Mhiribidi 2010). Housed in the Ministry of Labour, Social Welfare and Public Service, the Department of Social Welfare is responsible for various functions such as facilitating of adoption and foster care, promotion of children’s rights, investigating cases of child abuse and enabling access to social safety nets for vulnerable families. As such, it has the mandate, in line with the Children’s Act Chapter 5:06, to protect children from all forms of child abuse, including child marriage.

Of importance, social work practice in this department is a wholesale importation from the colonial regime (Kaseke 1991; Mhiribidi 2010; Dziro 2013). The colonial child welfare system was chiefly a mechanism of social control through addressing challenges that were perceived by the regime as a threat to order and stability such as juvenile crime (Kaseke 1991; Mhiribidi 2010). For instance, the colonial regime set up probation hostels for children in conflict with the law across the country. To date, these hostels or institutions are still operational and probation work and social control are the major functions of social workers. As with the British colonial child welfare system, most interventions undertaken by the Department of Social Welfare address the offshoots or symptoms of the problem instead of the structural cause (Mhiribidi 2010). This is because this department chiefly constructs social problems as arising from individual pathology and not his or her environment, a perspective inherited from the colonial regime. The other major roles of social workers in this department are placing of children into alternative care such as residential institutions and registration and monitoring of residential homes for children and older persons (Kaseke 1991; Mhiribidi 2010).

Case work, which is the main method of intervening in this department, has been criticised by many local social work scholars as not equipped to address the socio-economic problems in Zimbabwe (see, for example, Kaseke 1991; Mupedziswa 2005; Chogugudza 2009). For instance, the major social problems in Zimbabwe and other African countries are poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, limited access to water and sanitation, limited access to social services and civic issues such as corruption (Chogugudza 2009). Given the structural nature of these challenges, they cannot be tackled by case work as it is mostly geared towards enhancing the psychosocial functioning of the service users rather than addressing the structural and macro challenges that they encounter (Mamphiswana and Noyoo 2000). As such, social work practice in this department is not adequately positioned to end child marriage given that this issue is strongly embedded in complex cultural, economic, political and social factors which calls for structural solutions. As a result, there have been efforts to transform services offered within this department so that they could address the structural social problems that many vulnerable groups encounter. However, this transformation has been very slow which may be a reflection and indication of the complexity of changing the organisational culture and values (Mhiribidi 2010). This slow transformation is not unique to Zimbabwe; Van Breda (2015) notes that despite South Africa being considered a developmental state, there has been limited uptake of developmental roles among social workers.

The Case for Developmental Social Work

Developmental social work is a growing form of practice, especially in Southern Africa, to tackle structural challenges faced by most people in these contexts. Importantly, it is a radical shift from psychosocial solutions, such as those earlier mentioned, towards structural solutions which are adequately positioned to engage with the socio-economic and political challenges peculiar to African contexts (Patel 2005). Given that extensive efforts have been made to conceptualise developmental social work, this paper will not explore this conceptual thinking and practice in detail (for further details, see, for example, Gray 2002; Patel 2005; Lombard and Wairire 2010; Midgley 2010; Van Breda 2015). It, however, explores the relevance of this concept in addressing child marriage, in particular its prevention. Developmental social work approach is defined by Gray and Simpson (1998, p. 229) as

a multifaceted approach aimed at empowering and building the capacity of people and organisations to meet social needs and to develop social resources; which comprises non-remedial forms of intervention; which is concerned with non-material resources, such as people’s participation, community support and naturally occurring networks; and is concerned with material gains, linking social work with economic development in that real empowerment comes from the achievement of economic independence and autonomy.

Similarly, Lombard and Wairire (2010, p. 99) defines it as ‘an integrated, holistic approach to social work that recognises and responds to the interconnections between the person and the environment; links micro and macro practice; and utilises strength-based and non-discriminatory models, approaches and interventions, and partnerships to promote social and economic inclusion and well-being’.

A close analysis of these two definitions indicates three major elements of this approach; that it promotes active participation and involvement of service users, addresses structural causes of social problems and is strength based (Patel 2005; Lombard and Wairire 2010). These elements are crucial and relevant in dealing with child marriage especially with respect to dealing with its major causes. By promoting and ensuring participation and involvement of service users, developmental social work acknowledges the importance of ensuring that service users are provided the opportunity to actively participate in the helping process as experts of their agenda (Gray 2002). For example, to tackle child marriage, developmental social work practice would involve not just the service users but all the stakeholders such as children, caregivers, politicians, grass roots organisations, traditional leaders and politicians to analyse and reflect on the causes and effects of child marriage, possible solutions to address child marriage and collectively develop, implement, monitor as well as evaluate the interventions.

As a strength-based approach (Gray 2002), developmental social work practice recognises and seeks to build on the already prevailing strengths, resilience and coping mechanisms (Mhiribidi 2010). For example, in relation to addressing child marriage, developmental social work recognises that families and their communities have various strengths and resilience mechanisms which are crucial in preventing child marriage. Developmental social work practice takes into consideration the prevailing strengths and makes a deliberate effort to strengthen them; this creates opportunities for sustainability even when the social work support is no longer available, as the families or communities may continue with their strengthened coping strategies. As Gray (2002, p.9) argues, ‘the strengths perspective focuses on human resourcefulness, passion, energy, intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and creativity. Rather than work from a deficit or pathology focus, the strengths perspective holds that the restoration of health is contingent on the creation of an environment conducive to human growth and fulfilment’.

Addressing Child Marriage: Developmental Social Work in Practice

The ensuing discussion looks at how developmental social work may be implemented by the Department of Social Welfare to effectively tackle child marriage. The proposed interventions are however not exhaustive but are targeted at the key drivers discussed in the past section. Additionally, the discussion below only focuses on efforts to prevent child marriage; however, social workers should also explore ways of supporting the girls already in child marriage such as prevention of gender-based violence and enabling access to sexual and reproductive health and economic opportunities.

Economic Strengthening and Poverty Reduction

Addressing poverty and the lack of viable and sustainable income-generating options for girls and young women is one of the major solutions to child marriage (Chinyoka and Ganga 2011). Research and Advocacy Unit (2014, p.11) (a socio-economic and legal think tank in Zimbabwe) in their study quotes a girl in a child marriage reporting, ‘I married too early because of poverty with the hope that I would get a better life. So, for me poverty was the reason I got married’. Another noted, ‘If the money had been there I would have made a choice to get married at 19, but as it is it was the circumstances of just sitting at home forced me to get married earlier’. These quotes reflect that social work interventions in the Department of Social Welfare need to address the economic motivation for families to marry off their daughters at an early age (ICRW 2011). The reasoning behind economic strengthening interventions is that they would provide an acceptable alternative to marriage and increase economic security and allow upward mobility. This reduces both the economic and social pressures to marry off a daughter early. There are many economic strengthening interventions that social workers may explore and strengthen.

Many households in Zimbabwe have a livelihood activity such as vending, agriculture, sewing, carpentry, fishing and animal husbandry to generate income (Muchacha et al. 2016). Thus, the role of social work, in line with the developmental social work principles, is to identify and support these strengths and coping strategies of families (Gray 2002). There are many ways in which social workers can support income-generating or economic strengthening activities. These include linking the households to microfinance institutions that provide low interest loans and capital to vulnerable families and sourcing expertise from other professionals to provide technical training to the families on subjects such as business management, value additions and bookkeeping. Specialised training can also be provided on subject areas such as poultry, beekeeping, mushroom production and herbal and nutritional gardening. Equally important, social workers can be instrumental in assisting these families to access lucrative markets for their products and lobby for better prices.

Above all, in supporting economic strengthening activities, social workers should ensure that families are actively participating in the programmes at the decision-making level. This is a developmental social work principle which states that service user participation should be mainstreamed. This is in recognition of the observation that service users are the experts of their situation, and the role of social workers is to facilitate and provide an enabling environment. Another key consideration is that these social work economic strengthening programmes should be family-centred meaning that they should target and involve the family as a whole. This means that even children should also be targeted and involved in the economic strengthening activities. They should also be given an opportunity to understand and be aware of the rationale of these activities.

Enabling Equitable Access to Education for Girls

Evidence shows that access to education among girls is positively correlated to delayed marriage (ICRW 2011). Girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children when compared to girls who have little or no education (UNICEF 2007). In 42 of the countries analysed by UNICEF (2005), women 20–24 years of age who had attended primary school were less likely to be married by age 18 than those who had not. Significantly, education helps girls to acquire skills and information, which empower them to better communicate and negotiate their interests (ibid). To parents and society, education may make the returns to human capital investment in girls more obvious and justifiable (ICRW 2011). Bayisenge (2010) holds that education proliferates the chances of women finding well-paying employment and the prospect to raise a healthy family and averts the spread of diseases such as HIV and AIDS. As such, enabling access to education is considered one of the strongest interventions to prevent child marriage (ICRW 2011; UNICEF 2005).

Consequently, social workers in Zimbabwe should develop and implement interventions to help girls remain in school and to also produce better results that can enable them to proceed to advanced and tertiary education. The significance of equitable access to education is reiterated by the International Federation of Social Workers (2012, online) policy statement on globalisation and education which maintains,

Education is essential in order to break into the cycle whereby severe poverty and deprivation for the parents is replicated in diminished life chances for the children of the household. Educational opportunities need to be made available to all members of society. This will involve a conscious and deliberate attempt to create enhanced access for families living in deprived conditions to overcome the social obstacles which they face.

The major barriers to access to education among girls include poverty, limited family support and early pregnancies (Mawere 2012). Related to the discussion on economic strengthening, to enable access to education, social workers need to support vulnerable families to implement sustainable income-generating initiatives which can enable families to generate income and keep the girls in school. To address early pregnancies, social workers may partner with schools and clinics to provide sexual reproductive education to girls (ICRW 2011). This intervention is crucial in empowering them to understand the biological developments in their bodies and the need to abstain from sexual intercourse or to use protective measures such as condoms. Discussions about condoms and other contraceptives are difficult in the conservative society of Zimbabwe since many people regard teaching children about condoms and contraceptives as endorsing children to have sex. However, the reality is that children are having sex among themselves and also with adults leading to early pregnancies.

Community Sensitisations and Awareness

There is limited awareness of the effects and implications of child marriage among caregivers especially in rural Zimbabwe where child marriage is common practice (Sibanda 2011). In light of this background, social workers have an important role and function in raising community awareness targeting all members of the community including the children themselves on the impact and implications of child marriage and about human rights (ICRW 2011; Svanemyr 2012). Community sensitisations and awareness initiatives are also crucial especially in enhancing behaviour change and attitudes towards child marriage and addressing social norms and cultural practices that promote child marriage (ICRW 2011). There are many approaches that can be employed by social workers to raise community awareness among caregivers such as parenting clubs/training, campaigns and community dialogues. Evidence has shown that community awareness approaches which have limited active participation of the service users such as rallies, road shows, campaigns and posters have limited impact especially with respect to facilitating behaviour change (ICRW 2011).

Approaches that enable dialogue, active participation, engagement and critical reflection such as community dialogues and parenting skill education are viewed as more effective in facilitating behaviour change and addressing harmful social norms (Figueroa et al. 2002). The common and conventional methods of raising awareness stated above create unbalanced power relations between the communities and professionals delivering the information (ibid). It thus creates an atmosphere whereby professionals pose as experts while the communities or service users are made passive recipients of the information. Therefore, in line with the focus of the developmental approach to promote community ownership and sustainability of interventions, it is important that social workers mainstream active community participation, not only in the implementation of the community awareness programmes, but also in the planning and development of the programmes.

Most communities especially in rural areas have people who are in positions of authority and influence such as religious leaders, politicians, traditional leaders and healers and even local teachers or nurses. These respected persons are looked up to by the community for leadership and guidance, and their viewpoints on various matters are in many instances emulated by the communities that they lead. Gage’s (2007, p. xvii) evaluation of a community sensitisation programme in Ethiopia observed that ‘religious leaders have been key agents of change, exerting considerable influence over public opinion, building trust within communities, and fostering the cultural acceptability of deferred marriage’. In view of this influence that leaders hold, it is imperative that social workers when carrying out community awareness and engagement activities involve these persons as champions, role models and leaders against child marriage. This is very crucial especially in dealing with communities where child marriage is part of religious or cultural norms and practices, and these can only change if the leaders of such practices embrace change and recognise the importance of ending child marriage.

The community awareness activities undertaken by the social workers should also target and involve children and youths. Similar to interventions for adults, social workers need to mainstream the active participation of the children and youths from the planning to the evaluation stage. Reaching out to youths and children calls for innovation among social workers to develop youth- and child-friendly activities that resonate with the interests of this target group. These may include sporting activities, dramas, music, social clubs and peer education through the use of technology such as social media (ICRW 2011). Peer education is emerging as one of the most useful interventions to raise awareness among children and youths on various matters such as sexual reproductive health and child marriage. Peer education programmes involve in-depth training and orientation of youths and children so that they can provide advice and information to their peers on various subject matters. Peer education is important due to the fact that many children and youths are turning to their peers and friends for advice and avoid approaching their caregivers or other adults due to social norms which restrict discussion on these matters. Gage (2007, p.xvii) notes, ‘peer education programs are critical as more adolescent girls turn to their friends than to their family members or teachers when faced with an unwanted marriage. Training programs should prepare peer educators to inform, support and encourage girls in decision making about circumstances affecting their lives, including delaying their own marriages’. In this regard, the role of social workers could be to initiate peer education programmes and provide training and technical support and supervision of the peer educators.


Child marriage is a serious social challenge and a human rights violation in Zimbabwe. This paper has argued that tackling child marriage demands a complete paradigm shift from the traditional and curative social work approaches that dominate social work practice in the Department of Social Welfare to adopt developmental social work practice. It has argued that developmental social work practice is better positioned to address child marriage in Zimbabwe given that it is a human rights-centred approach that is focused on poverty eradication, promotion of inclusion and addressing inequalities, including gender inequalities. In this regard, in line with the developmental social work practice, the paper has offered some potential roles for social workers in the Department of Social Welfare to better address child marriage. These roles include enabling equitable access to education for girls, economic strengthening and poverty reduction and community sensitisations and awareness pertaining to the impact of child marriage and human rights.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Social WorkUniversity of ZimbabweHarareZimbabwe
  2. 2.Oxfordshire County CouncilSwindonUK

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