The ugly face of child marriages

Fri, 23 Feb 2018 08:16:29 +0000

By BENNIE MUNDANDO

ZAMBIA is said to have one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with 42 percent of women aged 20-24 years married by the age of 18 with the prevalence varying from one region to another.

However, statistics indicate that Eastern Province has the highest prevalence estimated to be around 60 percent.

The scourge has however not spared the rest of the continent as it has continued to rear its ugly face in most African countries, a development which has led to African leaders and stakeholders to come together and devise means of eradicating the scourge.

This, they seek to keep the girl-child in school and make the best out of their educational pursuits and add positively to the development of their countries.

Between November 26 and 27, 2015, Lusaka’s new Government Complex conference centre was full to capacity, with high profile representatives from different worldwide organisations as well as continental organisations dealing in various forms of child abuse including early marriages and related challenges.

The delegates converged in Zambia to discuss ways to eradicate the scourge of child marriage in Africa, within the framework of the First African Girls’ Summit, organised by the African Union Commission (AUC) in collaboration with the Zambian government.

Gender inequality, social norms related to marriage, adolescent pregnancy, poverty, agency and choice, and weak legal and policy frameworks were identified as some of the drivers of child marriages in Africa whose dire consequences include high maternal and infant mortality, sexually transmitted infections, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and low rates of completion of secondary school education, among others.

Speaking when he officially opened the First AU African Girl Summit on November 26, 2015, President Edgar Lungu reiterated that child marriages needed to come to an end as they posed a greater challenge in Zambia, just like other African Union member-states.

President Lungu urged AU member countries to fight the scourge to create an ideal and safe environment for all children in the continent, adding that the Zambian government was working tirelessly to ensure that child marriages were eradicated.

“So far, the prevalence has reduced from 42 percent to 32 percent. Let us join hands together and end the scourge. I am grateful to the African Union for choosing Zambia as the first country to host African Girls’ Summit on ending child marriage in Africa,” President Lungu said.

The former AUC chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, addressed the Summit participants in a recorded video message saying,

“We must end child marriage and educate the girl-child so that they can attain their full potential. Girls who end up as brides at a tender age are coerced into having children while they are children themselves. Child marriage generates norms that have become increasingly difficult to exterminate – norms that undermine the value of our women.”

The outcome document of the summit stressed among others, on the critical need to recognise that everyone has a role to play in ending child marriage – from international organisations to continental, regional and national organisations through concerted actions and strategies that holistically address the issue, to communities themselves, including religious and traditional leaders, parents, men and boys, and girls themselves. The summit resolved that a multi-sectoral approach was needed to end child marriage.

These interventions at multiple levels simultaneously such as mobilising families and communities in order to change attitudes and reduce the acceptance of the practice; ensuring that girls have access to quality education and health services, including reproductive health services, as well and economic development opportunities; empowering girls to be able to “say no to marriage” and establishing and implementing laws and policies that protect girls and help prevent child marriage.

Currently, Zambia is ranked 16th amongst countries with the highest rate of child marriage in the world and although the Marriage Act establishes a legal age for marriage and while the Penal Code makes sex with a girl under 16 an offence in Zambia, these provisions rarely apply in customary law.

Under statutory marriage, however, child marriages are illegal, and considered a form of child abuse. The legal age for marriage by law is 18 for females and 21 for males.

On the contrary, under traditional law, marriage can take place at puberty, and it is common for girls to be married or have sexual relations under the age of 16.

The current dual legal system in Zambia where customary law runs side by side with state law in matters of marriage, divorce and inheritance rights, the fight against child marriages has not made significant gains owing to these disparities and seeming contradictions in application.

Therefore, the statutory law is hindered by inconsistencies with other laws and policies on children, more so, by the existence of a customary legal system that allows girls to be married as soon as they have reached puberty.

Drivers of child marriage in Zambia include poverty, gaps in laws and enforcement as stated earlier, customary practices and gender discrimination norms which are still rampant among rural communities where a girl’s worth is measured in terms of economic value to the family through bride price.

According to the 2013 Human Rights Watch report, poverty is commonly cited by girls and family members as driving decisions to marry young.  For poor families with little money for food and basic necessities, marrying their daughters early is an economic survival strategy; it means one less child to feed or educate. Discriminatory gender norms in society such as perception that a girl’s place is in the kitchen and not worthy of an education make the situation even more complex as most parents are still inclined to this barbaric monotonous fashion of thinking that a girl-child’s value is no more than her bride price.

Legal frameworks play a powerful role in transforming norms and protecting girls’ rights.  However, just as stated earlier, the gaps in enforcement between statutory and customary laws with regard to marriage have retarded the fight against child marriages.

Traditional beliefs about gender roles and sexuality are also drivers of child marriage in Zambia. A girl who has reached puberty and has gone through an initiation ceremony such as Nkolola among the Tonga people is said to be matured enough to take care of a husband and family, making the issue of marriage out of question because by the time such a girl comes out of the initiation process, her dowry would have already been paid.

As a result of this harsh reality, Zambia’s maternal mortality rate (MMR) linked to early childbearing stands at a glaring 591 per 100, 000 live births which is one of the highest in the world, according to the 2008 Demographic Health Survey.

The 2013 MDG Progress report points to child marriage as one of the triggers of maternal mortality and these consequences are largely due to girls’ physical immaturity where the pelvis and birth canal are not fully developed.

Child marriage also halts girls’ progress in school. Even though government has introduced the re-entry policy where girls can return to school after giving birth, this derails the girl-child’s progress in education.

Furthermore, not all of them return to school as they could be forced to get married, a move with far-reaching consequences such as lack of economic independence as they have to depend on their husbands all the time for nearly everything.

A research by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 2013 showed that limited education may make girls and women more vulnerable to persistent poverty when their spouses die, abandon, or divorce them.

Child marriage also exposes girls and women to violence, including marital rape, sexual and domestic violence, and emotional abuse.

It is the task for stakeholders such as community and religious leaders, school teachers and administrators, health workers, police, prosecutors, government officials, the media, and parents among others to combine efforts that would tackle the thorny issue of child marriages.

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