Zimbabwe’s prosecutor general, Johannes Tomana, recently asserted that girls as young as 12 can consent to sex and marriage. In an interview last week, Tomana said marrying off 12-year-olds is a “practical” and “wholesome” solution for girls who are out of school and for poor families struggling in Zimbabwe’s ailing economy.

Members of a local Zimbabwean NGO, ROOTS (Real Open Opportunities for Transformation Support), during a campaign to end child marriage in Zimbabwe. © 2014 ROOTS

Peddling the misconception that child marriage can improve the lives of girls and poor families is not only outrageous, it is dangerous, especially when the comments come from a senior government official whose job it is to uphold laws that should protect girls from abuse and exploitation.

The United Nations says nearly one-third of girls in Zimbabwe marry before their 18th birthday and 4 percent before they turn 15. Human Rights Watch investigations, along with research conducted by other groups and UN agencies, have found that child marriage typically ends a girl’s ability to continue her education, exposes her to domestic and sexual violence (including marital rape), and also increases the risk of HIV infection. Bearing a child at an early age heightens the risk of death or serious injury in childbirth. It also does not help matters that Zimbabwe has two contradictory laws on marriage, each giving different legal minimum ages for a girl to wed, and its new constitution has not resolved this.

Tomana’s views are totally at odds with the young women in Zimbabwe campaigning for child marriage to be declared illegal and unconstitutional. Ruvimbo Tsopodzi, 19, and Loveness Mudzura, 20, both former child brides, are suing the Zimbabwe government over its failure to curb child marriages. In a media interview last month, Tsopodzi, a mother of one who was married at 15, was clear about how destructive early marriage can be. “I've faced so many challenges,” she said. “My husband beat me. I wanted to stay in school but he refused. It was very, very terrible.”

Ending child marriage is critical to protect girls’ human rights and help end discrimination and violence against them. The Zimbabwean government should quickly denounce Tomana’s toxic comments and make clear it’s committed to ending child marriage and upholding the rights of all girls in Zimbabwe.

Marrying off girls as young as 12 is not “wholesome” or “practical,” but dangerous and illegal. The prosecutor general clearly needs to be reminded of this.