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Egregious human rights violations on women and children in church




THIS study looked at various abuses obtaining in the Johanne Marange Apostolic Church (JMAC) and relating these to the provisions in the constitution.

The reference to the constitution is premised on the fact that Zimbabwe is a constitutional democratic state.

Without quoting the law it is difficult to expose how the church is violating the rights of its congregants. Human rights are explained from the perspective of the constitution, especially when dealing with a constitutionally democratic state (Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment 20 Act 2013:16).

To add on, there is a need to understand that Zimbabwe has a dual legal system, namely, customary and civil law. One must therefore have a deep understanding of the two sets of laws if one is to avoid confusing the two.

Whenever one talks of ecclesiastical human rights violations, one must identify when the teaching, practice or ritual is violating customary or civil law or both. In Zimbabwe, the courts are divided into two: civil and customary courts.

Human rights violations are a constitutional matter where each identified practice, ritual and teaching must be linked to a specific clause in the constitution. The constitution does decree that any other laws that are inconsistent with the constitution are null and void to the extent of its own inconsistencies (Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment 20 Act 2013:16).

Of note, Zimbabwe operates on a dual legal system, namely customary law and Roman-Dutch Law. More importantly, some of the provisions in the two pieces of legislation contradict each other.

A reading of either customary law negating civil law may misconstrue the research findings. What might be illegal in civil law is legal at customary law and churches’ practices, rituals and teaching relate more to customary laws than to civil law.

Civil law is only invoked where there is a criminal case that could have been raised. Given that JMAC teaches that none of its members should approach any secular court for any form of remedy, civil law is never applied since human rights issues are kept secret.

Particular concern about the church is on how it has used religious practices to cascade into social behaviour that now includes early marriage, pre-arranged marriage, forced marriage, virginity testing, prioritisation of the boy child as far as accessing economic and educational opportunities, thus neglecting the girl child.

In addition to this are concerns about church-initiated marriages with or without consent, the barring of church membership to access Western medical healthcare services, prenatal and post-natal healthcare services to women, access to both control initiatives and family planning methods to women and health care and inculcation of a chauvinist patriarchal sub-society based on religious doctrinaire that has been attributed to the church.

Therefore, the study aimed to clarify and examine the said practices, allegations and establish factual research-based findings whereupon recommendations can be instituted, by all stakeholders involved in the implementation of women and children’s rights implementation bodies in Zimbabwe.

The nature of the relationship and power dynamics between the state and the church is a very important determinant factor that helps to explain on whether the state is able to force the church to repeal some of its theologies, doctrines and traditions that are deemed to be violating the rights of women and children. Historical facts help to trace in history the nature and the scope of the problem at hand.

There have been grey areas with regard to whether the government of Zimbabwe is unwilling or incapable of responding to human rights violations in African independent churches (AICs).

There are assumptions that AICs, through their radical doctrines, are resisting state authority in the same manner that it even resisted the colonial authority despite persecution and prosecution. The church’s resistance to state authority is a historical fact tracing back from 1648 Treaty of Westphalia or beyond.

The epitome of these power relations is the investiture dispute between the church and the state. The question was who had the power of investiture between the priest and the king. The French Revolution had this debate as a topical matter to the conflict.

Under the general principle of the greater good, rights should be enjoyed without infringing on other people’s rights. This is to say, religious rights enjoyment should not impinge on the rights of the special groups like women and children. Legally, both at municipal and at international level, the state is the enforcer of human rights.

Whilst the state has the constitution as the point of reference, the church has the Bible as its point of reference. Notably, when the church designs its theology it uses the Bible and revelation, and not the constitution.

To note, churches like JMAC openly instruct its congregants not to respect the secular courts and its laws. It is the duty of the state to ensure that the church abides by the constitution. Perhaps the church is still living in the shadow of the past, where it enjoyed absolute authority over the state.

Historically the church was above the state insofar as the Hebrew text is concerned. Kings were appointed by religious functionaries up until the 1648 Westphalia Treaty. As long as power contestations are not resolved, women and children will continue to have their rights violated. The church ends up concealing and presiding over crimes against the state which are meant for the secular courts, for example rape, infanticide, child marriage and gender-based violence.

While states were given the legal autonomy over the religious domain by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, the unwritten laws are the ones recognised in Africa. Africans have so much respect for their culture which defines their value system and influences the state’s behaviour.

In Africa, spirituality is more important than laws and rules. To note, spirituality played a key role in liberating Africa, such that spirit mediums were taken to war. Africans believe they gained political independence because of the active participation of religious functionaries in fighting colonialism, hence, most, if not all, African presidents consult the spirits to direct their leadership.

The 1648 Treaty of Westphalia is more on paper than it is being practised in Africa. Owing to this, most African states seem reluctant to reprimand AICs whose theological practices and doctrinal elements may be found to be infringing into the rights of the citizens, as is the case with JMAC with regards the rights of women and children.

There is a hen-egg debate on whether the government of Zimbabwe has the moral locus standi to teach churches on human rights when in fact the government itself was red-flagged by the UN for state-initiated human rights violations. Both the state and the church have to be reformed so that they respect the fundamental human rights.

The mentioning of the church-state relationship is not a deviation from the question, but that theology is enforced by the church and human rights by the state. The relationship between these two enforcers is very important.

The JMAC and the state are merely two sides of the same coin in terms of human rights abuses. The church has less to learn from the state with regard to human rights issues. This literature helps to explain why the state is perhaps turning a blind eye to rights violations on women and children.

Regardless of the church-state relations in Zimbabwe, the duty to protect and promote the rights and welfare of its citizens lies with the state and not the church. The role of the church is complementary to the state.

In the preamble of the constitution, chapter 1 on the founding provisions section, it opined that the constitution is the supreme law of Zimbabwe and any law, practice, custom or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid to the extent of its inconsistency (Constitution of Zimbabwe Amendment 20 Act, 2013:16).

Thus, in Zimbabwe any theological or doctrinal practice that violates the rights of the other is an invalid practice that must be repealed and realigned to the provisions of the constitution.

The constitution is very clear that the rights of women and children must be protected. Therefore, all theological teachings and practices that do not conform to the constitution must be repealed.

About the writer: Matthew Mare is a Zimbabwean academic who holds two bachelor’s degrees, five master’s qualifications and a PhD. He is also doing another PhD and has 12 executive certificates in different fields. Professionally, he is a civil servant and also board member at the National Aids Council of Zimbabwe.

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