The UN has condemned underage forced marriages in Zimbabwe following the death of a 14-year-old girl reportedly during childbirth at a religious shrine in the east of the country.
The death has sparked widespread anger on social media and among children’s rights activists.
A petition to the police commissioner has attracted nearly 58,000 signatures since it was launched on Thursday.
Police at the weekend said they had opened an investigation into the death, which occurred last month.
In a statement dated Saturday, the United Nations said it “notes with deep concern and condemns strongly the surrounding circumstances leading to the untimely death of 14-year-old Memory Machaya… who died while giving birth at an apostolic sect shrine.
“Sadly, disturbing reports of the sexual exploitation of underage girls, including early forced marriages, continue to surface and this is indeed another sad case,” it added.
The UN said the trend of cases of violence perpetrated against women and girls in Zimbabwe, “including marriages of minors, cannot continue with impunity.”
Official statistics show that one in three Zimbabwean girls are married off before the age of 18.
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda, head of Rozaria Memorial Trust, a Zimbabwean charity fighting the practice of child brides, says that is an underestimation.
“We saw the spike with Covid-19,” she told AFP.
The government has reported “high increases in teenage pregnancy and child marriages, (and) Covid-19 has exacerbated the situation,” said Gumbonzvanda, who is also the African Union goodwill ambassador on ending child marriage.
“We have a crisis on our hands,” she said.
A government watchdog, the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, said Sunday that it was “fast-tracking an investigation” into the case and “many other reports of ‘sexual violations against children including rape’ sanitised as child marriages”.
Police have also said they are investigating.