Children as young as five years and some aged eight, far below the age of consent of 16 years, are being coerced into marriage among the Ovahimba people who premise these nuptials on culture.
The age of consent is the minimum age at which an individual is considered legally old enough to participate in sexual activities.
A New Era investigation can reveal the Ovahimba who are nomadic pastoralists in Kunene still engage in forced child marriages, which is possibly in breach of existing criminal statutes.
Another cultural practice involving the Ovahimba are polygamous marriages that are not legally recognised under Namibia’s civil marriage law,
but they continue being forced upon Ovahimba women in this religiously cultured community.
Ovahimba nomadic pastoralists inhabit the Kunene Region where they rely on communal livestock farming.
In addition to polygamous marriages at Okapembambu village, arranged child marriages are common with children as young as five and nine forcefully wedded off in traditional ceremonies.
But while other cultures may deem polygamy and forced child marriages a taboo, for the Ovahimba it is a cultural norm.
This results in young under-age brides finding themselves with men whom they are not attracted to and who are much older than them.
But it is their obligation to honour their parents’ wishes by accepting these arranged marriages involving husbands who are much older.
Eight-year-old Wararamuzo Tjipukua was forced into an arranged marriage with a husband who is 25 years older than her.
She was wedded off to a 33-year-old unemployed husband when she was just five years while she was doing her pre-grade.
During the interview, the shy Tjipukua made no eye contact and often covered her face with her hands.
Another ‘wife’ is 11-year-old Keeja Tjuumbwa, whose husband is twice her age. She was wedded off at the age of 10 when she was in Grade 2.
Tjuumbwa’s husband is a meat vendor at Opuwo.
But just like Tjipuka, Tjuumbwa would not make eye contact and looked away throughout the interview, pausing for a long time before she eventually answered.
Their stories are not much different from their mothers’.
Thirty-two-year old Katumuine Hepute says unlike in the case of child brides her husband had proposed and she was not given away.
“I really wanted to get married and have a husband,” she said.
Hepute, who is the first wife in their polygamous home, shares a husband with the 24-year-old Mukameree Kakuvi.
Hepute was married at 19 and is now a mother of eight children.
Kakuvi is the mother of the eight-year-old Tjipukua and is also a victim of an arranged marriage.
Her husband took her in as a second wife when she was 16. Although she did not approve getting married young, the mother of three said she has no regrets and loves her husband deeply.
“I have no problem being a second wife – it is even better to have two people doing the household chores than one,” Kakuvi responded when asked how she felt about being the second wife.
“He can even marry up to ten wives, it will reduce the work at home,” the first wife Hepute chipped in.
The work at their marital home includes working in the crop field and looking after livestock.
The wives share a bond and throughout the interview looked at each other for approval when answering questions, which is usually done through a smile or a nod.
They assemble under a tree between their two huts because each wife has her own room. Asked where the husband spends the night when he comes home, Kakuvi said he usually rotates between the two rooms.
“He rotates – he would spend two nights with me, then he will go to Katumuine and vice versa,” said Kakuvi.
Asked whether the rotation does not cause conflict among the two wives she responded it is his obligation to satisfy both wives.
“We are not rivals, we are a family and we are happy with each other,” said Hepute.
Although the two wives share a husband, the use of condoms is only applicable when breastfeeding to avoid falling pregnant immediately and to further avoid denying the husband his conjugal right.
In the absence of breastfeeding, the husband does not entertain the use of a condom.
But with the approval of their husband the women can use contraceptives to avoid bearing children every other year.
“But when the husband sees it fit to have another baby, the contraceptive is put on hold until a baby is conceived and you can only resume contraceptive usage once you have finished breastfeeding,” said Hepute.
They say HIV infection occurs when husbands who leave home to search for work have intimate relationships with other women elsewhere.
“We do not have control of who our husband sleeps with, so we look up to God to protect us,” said Kakuvi.
Apart from sharing their husband and household chores, the two wives said they also share food between themselves.
“It is the same with our husband – he shares whatever he brings home equally with us,” said Kakuvi.
Giving further insight into her marriage, Kakuvi said she did not want to be married off young because she did not understand the essence of marriage.
But unfortunately she had already started menstruating and had her first baby after a year into her marriage.
“It was not my choice, I only did it for my parents.”
She related that she delivered her first daughter, Tjipukua, the eight-year-old, assisted by the elders.
Also following in her parents’ footsteps, Kakuvi did not object to her daughter being given away to an older man when the father proposed.
But she said when her daughter is much older and can make decisions on her own she can always return home if she does not approve of her husband.
Currently Tjipukua lives with her parents’ family but is not intimately involved with her husband.
As per the Ovahimba custom, the husband can only get intimate with his young wife when she has her first menstruation when she is about 14 or 15 years old.
According to Ovahimba elders, the children continue going to school while married and even after falling pregnant, if they so wish.
They however only leave school when breastfeeding, but they are allowed to return after a few months after breastfeeding.
The shy Tjipukua had not much to say. She consistently covered her face as she responded briefly to questions.
She said her duties at her husband’s house include fetching water and looking after the livestock, but she added she was not happy about being married as she wants to continue her schooling.
Ironically, some of Tjipukua’s husband’s children are older than her while some are her peers.
“Some of the children call her by her name, but her husband’s children call her mama,” the mother chipped in.
Tjuumbwa said she was also not happy about being married, but she had no choice.
She is married to her cousin who also resides in her grandmother’s house.
A teacher at Okapembambu village who chose to remain anonymous said being married young is common practice in the Ovahimba community hence no children are teased while at school.
In an earlier interview with the Ministry of Home Affairs and Immigration public relations officer Salome Kambala, she said the law has not empowered the ministry to intervene in teen marriages and arranged traditional marriages.
Kambala said traditional marriages are a challenge because the people involved are not married at institutions hence there are no marriage certificates or records thereof.