By Nyarai Kachere
MUTARE, Zimbabwe, Sep 29 (IPS) - Three years after being seized from their families and forced to marry and have sex with adult men in a Shona ritual to appease an avenging spirit, five teenagers are facing a dismal reality.
The girls from Honde Valley in Manicaland had to drop out of school, become under-age wives and mothers and live an impoverished life as vegetable vendors to contribute to their new families' household income.
In 1999, Felicitas Nyakama, Nesta Maromo, Juliet Muranganwa, Precious Maboreke and Perseverance Ndarangwa, who were then between the ages of seven and 15, were handed over by their parents to the family of Gibson Kupemba as payment for the man's murder. The girls' relatives killed Kupemba to prepare muti, traditional medicine, which is sometimes made from body parts.
According to traditional belief, a murderer's relatives need to appease a dead person's spirit with virgin girls, sometimes as young as six years old. The virgin has to live with the murdered person's family, no matter her age. When she reaches puberty, she is made the wife of one of the male members of her new family.
Kupemba's grandson Gibson (junior) said his father appeared to him in his sleep, demanding a virgin girl as compensation from each family involved in his murder. He insists the girls were not forced to offer themselves, but it was their personal choice to rescue their families from an evil spirit.
"They came here to confess on their own volition. Each girl must be accompanied by 22 heads of cattle," said 28-year-old Kupemba junior, who married Precious Maboreke in 1999, when she was 15 years old. They have three children.
While five girls have already been pledged to the Kupembas, Kupemba junior says his family still demands twelve more virgins to avenge his grandfather's death.
Kuripa ngozi, or virgin pledging, is a punishable offence under Zimbabwe's Domestic Violence Act, the practice is rampant throughout the country but no perpetrators has ever been prosecuted.
The saga of the five girls began in 1995, the year Kupemba was murdered by four local grocery shop owners with the help of 13 other villagers. Kupemba's mutilated, decomposing body was found discarded in a dry riverbed.
Some time later, locals say, Kupemba's spirit started causing sudden ailments and deaths in the families involved, resulting in some of them confessing to killing him. The shop owners admitted to having chopped off his private parts, little fingers, tongue and a patch of hair for the preparation of traditional medicines to boost their businesses.
Despite the confessions, no arrests were made, and Kupemba's relatives allege the shop owners bought the police's silence.
To appease the dead man's spirit, the families handed over the first five virgins to the Kupemba family from 1999 onwards, but the process was stalled in 2006 when children's rights organisation Girl Child Network (GCN) compelled the police and the Department of Social Welfare to investigate the matter and return the girls to their families.
But shortly thereafter, investigations were put on ice. Headman Samanga of Honde Valley told IPS he pulled out of the Kupemba case, as all involved families had accused him of preventing them from resolving private, domestic affairs.
"In this area, people strongly believe kuripa ngozi can only be settled by offering a virgin girl. I was the lone voice against the practice, and it was soon drowned. The families believed I was hindering their efforts to settle their transgressions," he explained.
Eventually, the police, which had rescued four of the girls from the Kupemba family and put them under the custody of GCN, ordered GCN to send the girls back to their families, who returned them to the Kupembas.
Only the mother of one of the girls, Anna Ndarangwa, says she tried to rescue her daughter from the ritual. "I had a heated argument with the Kupembas," she said, but did not manage to take her daughter home.
Ndarangwa believes the girls were brainwashed into believing that the health and well-being of their families were dependent on their personal sacrifice. "It was like something was upon them. I don't want my daughter to pay for a crime she did not commit. I will die fighting for her," she declared.
Afraid to talk to the media, all five refused to be interviewed by IPS.
Read more from Inter Press Service.