Last week Johannes Tomana, Prosecutor General in the Ministry of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs in the Republic of Zimbabwe, declared in an interview with the Chronicle newspaper, that 12 year old girls should be allowed to have sex and get married if they so wished. The twisted nature of such thinking basically says that a man, take for example Tomana himself, should be able to have sex with and marry a 12 year old without repercussions, if only the damned laws that protect these children could be done away with.
Understandably, many (albeit not all!) people were appalled, some screamed paedophile alert and others called for his head on a platter. Women’s rights organisations, child rights groups and human rights groups have especially come out in full force demanding the resignation or the firing of Tomana. I could not agree more with all of them. Tomana’s comments defy all forms of comprehension. I shudder to think of a Zimbabwe where children are deemed adults for the sake of pandering to the paedophilic desires of grown men. I find especially concerning that Tomana, as a lawyer himself, seemed to have completely missed the idea of impaired consent and the questionable capacity of children to consent to sex. This is not to say of course that children do not engage in sex among themselves. They do. However, there is a stark difference between relationships of equals, however incapacitated those equals both are, and those of manipulation by those who should know best. The implied message in his interview was that by criminalising sex with underage girls, the law is failing girls by taking away the only avenue of opportunity open to poor, uneducated girls. I find the idea that marriage should be regarded an economic opportunity for women to be grossly repulsive but I will leave @MaS1banda to educate Tomana on the ills of patriarchy.
Tomana’s furious backpedalling over the weekend was quite fascinating to witness. In a response typical of most public personalities, be they government officials, celebrities or politicians, whose words have courted a negative response from the public, Tomana denied ever making those remarks. He then spoke of how the Chronicle and the Herald are supposed to protect government and all its institutions and threw around words like criminal defamation. All of a sudden he knew and understood the law, but only as far as it protects his person and his reputation. One is not so naïve and so removed as to misunderstand the role that has been played by the State newspapers in Zimbabwe over the years, but that it can be taken for granted, particularly by government officials, and those involved with the nitty gritties of the law, that the role of these newspapers is to protect government and its institutions at all costs, I find problematic on so many fronts. As our democracy matures, there should be an effort, at the very least, to ensure that the role and function of state newspapers goes beyond being mere government propaganda machines. But wait! Our democracy has not grown over the years but has rather regressed.
Now, the issue of the need for the law and lawmakers to protect the rights of the child is incontrovertible, and a number of people have done an excellent job of unpacking this in the wake of Tomana’s comments. There is another issue that Tomana’s comments raised, beyond the ones that raised our ire the most – that of the socio-economic conditions in the country.
In supporting his argument, Tomana raised the issue of young girls who are not in school and to whom the environment is not giving any alternative engagements, and how society simply cannot expect them to sit and wait to become of age if marriage is a current option. I daresay Tomana was onto something when he spoke about the environment not giving girls any alternatives. But of course, the current state of the country’s economy does not give both girls and boys many alternatives; it is just that various forms of patriarchy make it even more difficult for girls. Tomana should have rather dealt with the reasons why such alternatives are absent.
In a perfect interview, Tomana would not have railed against the law for protecting children but would have railed against the country’s steady political and economic decline over the years, the political decay in the country, which is partly to blame for the economic meltdown. It is actually ironic that he spoke of debate as a concept in a country where there are limited spaces for open debates, especially on political issues, save on social media. This is particularly important because politics has been at the core of Zimbabwe’s economic problems. He would have made suggestions on interventions to protect these children, both from chronic poverty and from sex predators.
What welfare structure has the state put in place to protect these children? If, because of the current state of the economy, the government does not have the capacity to create such welfare structures, has the government made it easy at least for aid organisations to operate in the country and provide an alternative? Where are those targeted interventions by government, by Tomana’s office, to try and protect these children before condemning them tounderage sex, child marriage and child motherhood? Also, what is the government doing to promote job creation and alleviate poverty? What of vocational training for those children that are not at school? Actually, what of building more schools in the rural areas? Because, let’s face it, while there are children that are not in school in the urban areas, a greater incidence of that occurs in the rural areas. What is government doing to prevent the brain drain in the country so that the minds needed for reconstruction and development are retained and put to work? How do we revive our industries and make them globally competitive? The manufacturing, agriculture and services sectors have such potential but are hindered by inappropriate and populist policies that are hostile to investment.
However, Tomana is of the same ilk of leadership in Zimbabwe that has managed to constantly find alternative reasons for the country’s decline beyond themselves. The socio-economic challenges in Zimbabwe might not go away for a long while to come. Can you stop for a moment to imagine a country of 12 year old mothers and 36 year old grandmothers; with no economic prospects whatsoever, because our leadership thought to do away with the laws that protect them so as to give them alternatives because nothing else was giving?
In a perfect interview, Tomana would have made references to the socio-economic conditions that compel children into early marriages; he would have dealt with the underlying reasons behind those socio-economic conditions; dealt with the issues that help maintain the rot in the economy and made suggestions to overcome the problems. However, it was not a perfect interview. Tomana was not the perfect interviewee and he thought courting controversy in a country of desperate young people would distinguish him as a visionary.
In a country whose leadership has navigated its fall from being the second best economically developed after South Africa to a regional economic basket case, Tomana thought he was creating room for opportunities for children by advocating for early childhood sex and marriage. Tomana was wrong on all levels and his views are reprehensible. Tomana does not deserve his job and should be fired. However, the answer to protecting Zimbabwe’s children and Zimbabwe’s future goes beyond replacing Tomana. It’s about arresting Zimbabwe’s steady decline and restoring the economy to its former glory.