ZAMBIA has 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, while statistics show that Eastern Province has the highest prevalence estimated to be around 60 percent.
At present, 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 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 above, 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 the kitchen and not worth of 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 above, 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.
While the harms of child marriages grim, the befits of ending the practice are transformative and far-reaching and in doing so, it is important that all relevant stakeholders-community and religious leaders, school teachers and administrators, health workers, police, prosecutors, government officials, the media, and parents understand and commit to their role in ending child marriage.