Police in Zimbabwe have launched an investigation after a 14-year-old died while giving birth at a church shrine last month.
Memory Machaya is thought to have died at the church site in the eastern region of Marange on July 15 before reportedly being secretly buried by members of the congregation two hours later. The case has brought attention to the exploitation of minors in the country after Machaya was reportedly forced to leave school in order to marry an adult church member.
The United Nations expressed "deep concern" about the case and urged Zimbabwe to tackle the issue of child marriage.
"The current trend of unresolved cases of violence against women and girls in Zimbabwe, including marriages of minors, cannot continue with impunity," the UN said in a statement on Saturday.
The Zimbabwe Gender Commission, which seeks to promote and ensure gender equality, said it was investigating the case and “many other reports of ‘sexual violations against children including rape,’ sanitized as child marriages".
Over 60,000 people have signed a petition addressed to the head of the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP), demanding justice for Machaya.
"The constitution is clear on the child marriage and the observation of children's rights," the petition reads. "The police needs to take any allegations of sexual crimes against children seriously and thoroughly investigate every case that comes to their attention. The case of Memory Machaya is a perfect opportunity to investigate and make sure that all perpetrators are prosecuted. As the ZRP, the time to act is now!"
It continues: "As citizens we need to put pressure on all duty bearers involved to act and bring a stop to child sexual abuse that is prevalent in religious sects. No religious leader is above the law. If they are marrying off children and sanctioning rape of minors they should be arrested. These sects should respect the law or they should not be allowed to operate in Zimbabwe."
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), child marriage is "rampant" in Zimbabwe, especially within indigenous apostolic churches.
The rights group also highlighted that a 2016 Constitutional Court decision ruled that child marriages were "unconstitutional" and set 18 as the minimum marriage age for girls and boys. However, HRW suggested that the apostolic church has largely ignored this, quoting a church member as saying that “as soon as a girl reaches puberty, any man in the church can claim her for his wife".
HRW said that forcing any girl into marriage "causes her untold suffering and long-lasting harm". They continued: "Girls are often sexually abused, beaten by their husbands and in-laws, confined in their homes, forced into pregnancy and labor, exposed to serious reproductive health risk including risk of death, and denied an education."
A new bill to ban the marriage of anyone below 18 years and prosecute anyone involved in the marriage of a minor is currently being debated in Zimbabwe's parliament.
The church has not issued any public statements on the situation.