Zambia is one of the countries in Africa with the highest rate of female child marriages, with a reported prevalence rate of 42%.  This harmful practice is more common in rural parts of Zambia, due to the high poverty levels.  The lack of information on health, high illiteracy levels and harmful old cultural practices and beliefs are some of the factors that have led to high rates in child marriages. Poverty has contributed to early marriages in Zambia, some children have dropped out of school as a result of their parents being unable to meet school fees due to poverty. These children have been at high risk in falling victim to early marriage and other abuse such as drugs, prostitution, alcohol and sexual abuse. In some cases, the girls have preferred to get married on their own due to the economic hardship they go through in their families.

 

Zambia has high illiteracy levels, although the government has embarked on an ambitious program to construct more schools to ensure every child accesses quality education. Due to lack of education, young girls lack adequate information on reproductive health and the dangers that come with early child bearing. As a result of this, they end up having complications during birth which may lead to death of the mother, the child or even both. An educated person has the ability to make good decision especially on matters that affect their well- being.

In Zambia, the ‘bride price’ or dowry which is a simply a sum of money or quantity of goods given to the bride’s family by that of the groom, especially in tribal societies, has been commercialized  Most parents claim that it takes hard work and high responsibility to raise a person from childhood to adulthood, hence tend to charge a lot of money as bride price, especially if their daughter has attained a high level of education In some tribes, they can charge as much as five to seven cows (animals, i,e cattle) and this can be translated into lot of money and can contribute to wealth creation. This trend was more common in urban areas but has now spread to rural areas. In the past, the charge was very low in villages but due to the high poverty levels that characterise most rural households, parents tend to marry of their children early in anticipation of the high bride price or dowry. As a result of this, a parent with many female children will always be looking forward to the day she/he will marry her/ his daughters and make more money, thereby perpetuating early child marriages. The price ranges from $1,000 to $5,000, which has led to many parents, eager to profit from their daughter’s existence, marrying her off as opposed to keeping her in school.

Due to the adverse consequences brought about by early marriages, many players both at the local and national level have raised concerns about the need for Zambia’s Government to heighten measures that combat address child marriage.  Since then, interventions aimed at instituting legislative change and reviewing service provision in education, health, and child protection have been underway in Zambia.

The Zambia Law through the Marriage Act (Chapter 50 of the Laws of Zambia) states. amongst other things, that no one under the age of eighteen should be married, and definitively declares any person under 16 years of age to be a child.  This goes a great way in creating a legislative and judicial framework upon which marriages between older men and young girls can be nullified in the eyes of the law.

In 2016, child marriage was declared banned in Zambia in an announcement by His Excellency President Edgar Chagwa Lungu.  However, it is not yet clear whether this pronouncement has been – or will be - enacted into law anytime soon.  However, as a measure to reduce early marriages in the country, the Government has stated that it is considering a review the Marriage Act so that no one can get married until the reach the age of twenty-one years – a bold and progressive decision, if enacted.

Although the Marriage Act has been in place for decades, it has not adequately been able to address the challenge of early marriages this is because the legislation does not seem to regulate the cultural practices at the grassroots level which are in fact the causes of early marriages.  Additionally, Zambia has good laws… the biggest challenge has been not their creation, but their implementation.

 

GRASSROOTS CHANGE LEAD BY TRADITIONAL LEADERS

The Government of the Republic of Zambia has recognized that the best approach to address child marriage is to tackle it by starting from the grassroots level: through engaging the communities, children, traditional leaders and all other stakeholders so as to take an inclusive approach.  The Government, through the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs and supported by various dedicated civil society organizations, have been scaling up campaigns to change the narrative around early marriage, so that the dangers and disadvantages of them and highlighted within the community.

Most Chiefs and traditional leaders across the country have joined these campaigns, and are establishing measures to curb early marriages within their respective chiefdoms.  Some of the measures that these Chiefs are putting in place include dissolving all early marriages and sending the girls back to school, as well as introducing stiff punishments to parents who marry off their girl child at a tender age.  As a result of this, Chiefs are also leading other human rights campaigns in their communities, such as discouraging parents from perpetuating cultural practices that prevent the girl child from adapting to modern ways of life.  For example, Chief Mazimawe of the Chewa people in Eastern Province of Zambia has banned early marriage in his chiefdom, and he is advocating for stiffer legislation to protect children.  Further to this, he is also lobbying for Government to pass laws that will protect and give Chiefs the authority to reprimand parents who facilitate or enable early marriages. Chief Chamuka of Central Province is one of the Zambia Chief who has taken a strong stance in ending child marriages and he also introduced by laws in his chiefdom that him to punish the perpetrators of this vice.

This approach of involving Chiefs and other traditional leaders in making meaningful social change is slowly yielding results and seems to be the most approach so far in reconciling community values with a human rights agenda.  Chiefs and traditional leaders are recognized by the general community as the custodians of tradition and culture, which sees them command high respect in society.  They know the challenges their subjects face and stand in the best position to drive solutions for ending child marriage.  In this way, the government, together with other players, will be addressing the challenge of child marriage at the grassroots level.

The above measures may lead to a significant reduction of child marriages, but the change must be holistically managed to avoid heavy-handedness.  One consideration that is needed is how the safety and sanctity of families can be maintained when parents who have attempted to sell their daughters may be thrown into jail.  It is essential to ensure that mechanism and modalities are put in place to avoid creating new problems while trying to solve another problem.  Child marriage is a global challenge, and we all need to join hands to fight it.  Together we are much stronger and we can create a world where children are free to be children: a just society for all.

 

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