In January 2016, the Constitutional Court in Zimbabwe raised the age of consent for girl marriage from 16 to 18, giving parity with boys. The ruling followed years of campaigning against child marriage, particularly girl marriage. These campaigners were concerned about the educational, health, and earning disadvantages for girls who married early, but there were even stronger concerns about their sexual lives. “It is common cause,” noted the court ruling, “that child marriage is a particularly egregious form of child abuse, with most of these girls being married to much older men.” The anxieties that this concern betrays are rooted in a much older history. From the start of white occupation in 1890, men in the Shona communities in Zimbabwe (then called Southern Rhodesia, at least by those with the power to define world geographies) were accused by white administrators of this kind of child abuse:
so far as young native girls far below a marriageable age were concerned, and so far as the practice of middle-aged or grown-up men [agreeing marriages] for little children was concerned, an end should be put to the abuses that occurred (Second Reading of the Native Marriages Ordinance, Southern Rhodesia Legislative Council, July 1901).
To white legislators in the occupying force that had taken over the region, marriage was about access to sex. Attempts to ban ‘child marriage’ reflected their tendency to perceive African male sexuality as excessive and in need of constraint.
This view of African male sexuality as exceptionally voracious and promiscuous remains surprisingly persistent in global development circles today. As recently as 1989, the ‘Caldwell thesis’ from Australian demographers Caldwell, Caldwell, and Quiggan popularised the theory that the spread of HIV/AIDS in Africa was the outcome of deep-rooted traditions of vigorous male sexuality and promiscuity, which did not link sex with guilt, or sexual morality with female virginity. Objections to the Caldwell thesis from an Africanist perspective reversed Caldwell’s logic by insisting that African traditions had ensured all women were married and would not resort to prostitution, discouraged promiscuity, and embedded heteronormativity. It was European intervention and disruption of this tradition that had led to immorality, prostitution, and promiscuity.
Yet even as detractors repudiated the Caldwell thesis, they reaffirmed the centrality of sexual expression to the meaning of African marriages. But a consideration of the early twentieth-century attempts by whites to stop child marriage in Zimbabwe suggests that our understanding gets distorted if, like those white legislators, we think about the African organisation of conjugal relationships only through the lens of sexuality. From an African perspective, these child marriages were perhaps not primarily about sexual desire at all.
It’s difficult to talk about how Shona communities understood sexuality in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries, not least because the surviving historical evidence was almost all generated by whites. Nonetheless, we can observe that at the heart of Shona sexual regulation was a relationship between politics and production, based on marriage alliances between families. Marriage alliances were created and consolidated by the circulation of fertile women and cattle. Fertility mattered because there was no means of buying labour. Neighbours co-operated over big tasks: wives cultivated the land allocated to their husbands, juniors cultivated the land allocated to their seniors, but no one paid for labour. Marriages enabled families to expand their production by expanding their access to labour (in the form of wives and children). When a man married, he was allocated land for his wife and children to cultivate.
Of course, no one willingly lost a valuable pair of hands (or a fertile pair of ovaries). When a woman married and went to work on her husband’s lands, her family received bridewealth payments, normally paid across a decade or more, to compensate them for the loss. Payment was ideally in cattle, which stored wealth effectively and with interest – calves – across generations. The system was polygynous (multiple wives for one man) and senior men had a strict obligation to ensure that all the junior men had at least one wife. As far as it is possible to tell from the archival evidence, everyone, regardless of what we would now define as their ‘sexuality’ and sexual preferences, aspired to be in a fertile (that is, male-female) marriage. Marriage secured reproduction, rather than expressed sexual preference. Reproduction not only guaranteed family wealth, but also secured one’s afterlife as an ancestral spirit.
Social welfare and circulation of wealth depended on bridewealth arrangements. A man with rights over marriageable women was in a strong position. He could accumulate more wealth as bridewealth and he could more easily meet his obligations to secure wives for his younger male relatives. Moreover, he could attract additional men to work at his homestead by promising a wife in exchange for a period of service. Men from poor families who could not muster adequate bridewealth to acquire a wife, were dependent on this system in order to be able to get married, have children, develop an independent production base, and begin on the road to becoming an ancestral spirit. Wealthy households thereby became patrons to poorer households—tied together by marriage.
Unsurprisingly, then, men attempting to secure their position, wealth, and influence would routinely reserve rights to a girl (‘pledging’) before she reached puberty. In 1905, a legislator observed “it was a recognised practice among Mashonas to begin payment of the lobolo [bridewealth] when the child was two or three years old.” This didn’t mean that the girl went to live with the man’s family, or even that he intended to marry her himself. It often simply meant that he had a claim on bridewealth paid for her. The pledge might arise from bailing out the girl’s family with food or other resources in times of shortage: “a custom among the natives, when they were in straitened circumstances…where they had suffered from drought, of pledging their girl children” (Legislative Council, 1917). Most commonly, however, it was part of complex inter- and intra-family relationships spanning many generations of debt and reimbursement, all helping to keep cattle and wives in circulation. In July 1912, for example, Nechiora owed his brother Chenu £25, so he gave Chenu “a young girl, and [he] can wait until she grows up and get lobola for her.” Girls could be pledged to men as a way of securing the men’s services; they could also be pledged as a payment-free agreement between two fathers.
These arrangements were about fertility, power, alliances, and wealth. No doubt, when the pledged girls reached marriageable age, they were also about sexual desire. But who, in these stories, ended up having sex with whom was open to quite a lot of negotiation. For example, in 1913, a woman who had been pledged as a child to a man named Chinai was “willing to [marry] on condition that she is not made the wife of [Chinai]…she is willing to accept either of his sons for a husband”. People were pragmatic about what you could make a woman do. If she was going to run off with someone else, then there was not much point in trying to stop her. The aim, always, was to secure bridewealth from somewhere, ideally from the man that the woman actually wanted, so that other fertile wives could be brought into the family. This was a system of marriage regulation that was as much, or more, about the transfer of debts as about sex with nubile young women.
Yet, what white observers saw was rather different. There was some disagreement between whites about what, if any, aspect of this system was ‘moral.’ But they agreed about what they saw: young women were ‘sold’ to a man, often an older, wealthier, man. Some whites were particularly scandalised by polygyny, others by bridewealth. Some emphasized the tyrannous control that fathers had over their daughters. But most were horrified by pledging, which they saw as the sexual exploitation of girls: “the pledging and marriage of infants and young girls is…incompatible with what we regard as the principles of civilisation” (Native Affairs Department Annual, 1925). So they made laws to stop it.
The Southern Rhodesian state operated under license from the British government, under which it was only permitted to override African civil law where it was deemed to be ‘repugnant to natural justice or morality’ (Order in Council 1898, clause 50). Initially, laws governing African marriage were largely administrative, to establish who was ‘legally’ married to whom for tax purposes. However, even the first Native Marriages Ordinance, in 1901, whose primary purpose was to rule that all African marriages should be registered, implicitly banned pledging by stating that no bridewealth could be paid more than twelve months in advance of registration. A revised NMO in 1912, applied the ‘repugnancy clause’ and explicitly criminalised pledging, imposing a fine of £50 or a year’s imprisonment on any person who was party to the promising of an underage girl in marriage. A much more detailed registration law, the 1917 NMO, again had criminal penalties for pledging.
Regulations and systems for arranging marriage were increasingly responding to concerns about ‘repugnance to natural justice and morality,’ and being represented as laws about sexual morality and sexual constraint. Sexuality moved towards the heart of the white state’s marriage regulations. The concerns that motivated criminalisation – anxieties about sexual relationships with pledged girls – were not the primary frame of reference for African legal systems or understandings of pledging. Consequently, there was no way to interpret this criminalisation except in European sexualised terms. For the state, African marriage had become understood as bargaining over men’s access to women and sex, rather than as a way of negotiating alliances between households in need of labour power.
In this legal environment, child pledging was now understood primarily as child marriage, even by Africans. The spaces in which older African categories of marriage held sway were shrinking. Child marriage, like any marriage, was no longer understood as a way of making a long-term investment, but an arrangement for a man to have sex with a wife. European anxieties about under-age sex, which had sexualised pledging arrangements, became reflected in routine expectations that pledged girls would actually become child brides. In 1950, white legislators decided that pledging systems made it politically difficult to raise the age of consent for African girls. But sex with girl children was becoming normalised. By 2016, campaigners’ focus on the age of consent clarified how much had changed. Their successful lobbying gave formal recognition to the proposition that pledging was now mostly about sex.
Diana Jeater teaches history at Goldsmiths College, London. She is the author of Marriage, Perversion & Power: the construction of moral discourse in Southern Rhodesia (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993) and is currently working on gender, religion and neoliberalism in Zimbabwe.
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