AFRICA: Traditional Chiefs in Zambia work to stop child marriage

Lillian Banda – WNN Features

(WNN) Lusaka, ZAMBIA, EASTERN AFRICA: If recent developments are anything to go by, the campaign to end child marriages is steadily gaining momentum in Zambia. Since its launch in April this year with Zambia's First Lady Dr. Christine Kaseba, the campaign has received a rising amount of support from key players throughout Zambia.

Traditional leaders are also now beginning to take an active participation in the issue of child marriage by adding their impetus to the cause. With this campaign, more and more local leaders are now speaking out against child marriage and also calling for the arrest and prosecution of persons perpetuating forced marriages of child brides.

"Zambian law forbids marriage below the age of 21, but many girls end up being married even at 13 years. Getting reliable data on child marriages is difficult, but estimates show that almost half of Zambian women are married by the age of 18 – one of the highest prevalence rates in the world.," says the UNFPA – United Nations Population Fund office in Zambia.

Traditional leaders inside Zambia are now making it a point to ensure that that child marriage, along with other issues surrounding the subject, are being brought out into public discussions during village gatherings. The traditional leaders are utilizing public gatherings as a platform to educate their communities about the consequences for families who marry girls off at a young age.

"Traditional leaders play a very important role in advancing development. And as custodians of cultural, people hold them in high esteem; and thus making them even better advocates of positive change in their communities and beyond. It is encouraging to note that traditional leaders becoming aware of the need to uphold good cultural practices and discard ones that are detrimental to the well-being of their communities," outlines Princess Kapuwamba Mwaangala Mwintuminu Yeta of the ethnic Lotzi people in the western region of Zambia, known as Barotseland.

"I make it point to tell parents and community leaders that marrying off their children at an early age is not only a violation of the rights of the children involved but also counter productive. It is like eating a seed instead of planting it; which is not a wise thing to do," added Princess Kapuwamba. "The girl child has a lot of potential. But that can only be realized with the attainment of a good education. In western province, we have embarked on programs that promote the full participation of parents, community leaders [Headmen and Indunas] and children. The idea is to promote discussions around issues pertaining to child marriages and other tendencies that inhibit women and girls from realizing their potential," she continued. "The aim of such engagements is to come up with sustainable solutions."

Princess Kapuwamba, as a commissioner at the Human Rights Commission and The Law Development Commission in Zambia, is working today to press forward to ensure that Zambia has fewer cases of child marriage. Zero cases is a big goal for her, as well as others who are working to reduce the numbers of girls who are affected by early marriage, despite encountering numerous roadblocks.
Child marriage throughout Zambia is a big challenge in low-income communities in both urban as well as rural settings.

One concern for stop-child-marriage advocates in Zambia is the conflict between Zambia's legal customary and statutory laws covering the age of consent in the region. The Customary law in Zambia allows someone to marry legally at 16-years-of-age, as this is considered to be the age of adulthood. But the Statutory law considers someone an adult, who is able to marry, only once they reach the age of 18. Conflicts in the ages as defined in these two separate laws demand a rewriting of the laws to avoid conflicting legal definitions, say advocates inside and outside of Zambia.

"We ought to do everything in our power to ensure girls can become all they can be," said Nobel Peace Laureate and Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu, who is also a Honorary member of The Elders, during the Girls Not Brides conference co-sponsored by The Elders in November 2012.

According to the UNFPA, within the decade from 2011 and 2020, more than 140 million girls are expected to become child brides.

If current levels of child marriages stay steady globally, 14.2 million girls annually or 39,000 girls daily will marry too young. Of the 140 million girls who are expected to marry before they are 18-years-of-age, 50 million girls are expected to marry under the age of 15.

In Eastern Zambia another local leader is speaking out on the issue of child brides. Paramount Chief Mpezeni of the Ngoni people recently announced that he had created a school scholarship fund to help vulnerable children, especially girls, so they can stay in school and avoid early marriage.

Chief Simamba of the Bantu Botantwe people in Siavonga district in Southern Zambia is also urging parents to stop forcing their children into early marriages, as doing so 'would result in dire consequences', outlines the Chief.

Saying that parents who marry off their girl children at a tender age should be charged and punished so that the trend is put to a halt, Chief Simamba emphasizes the need to educate young girls so they can 'attain their aspirations'.

Critical of the increased number of girls dropping out of school due to early marriages in the Siavonga district the Chief also stressed that the 'headmen' in his 'chiefdom' should not hesitate to report all cases of child marriage to local authorities in order to eradicate premature marriages among girl children. Known throughout Zambia to be more traditional, Chief Simamba outlined his thoughts publicly at a community meeting in Namutezi village in his region, the Siavonga district.

A UNFPA sub-analysis of the 2007 Zambia Demographic and Health Survey indicates that on average, two out of five girls will be married before their 18th birthday. This represents about 42% of women in the country. The analysis also indicates that while child marriage is common in Zambia, girls living in rural areas are at a higher risk of being married at an early age, and those with no access to education are the most vulnerable to the trend.

Facing challenges in child marrage in Zambia's Northern province Chieftainess Nawaitwika of the Namwanga people has taken it upon herself to sensitize people in her region about the dangers and effects of child marriages.

The Chieftainess addressed over a thousand people in a rural village in the Nakonde district, saying cases of early marriages in her chiefdom are a 'source of worry'. She also condemned the act of marrying off young girls saying, "It is not part of the Namwanga cultural," according to news from Radio Phoenix, a local radio station in Zambia's capital city Lusaka.

Zambia's federal government is weighing in too to stop child marriage conveying that early marriages are not only impacting negatively on local education systems, but the practice is also considered a contributing factor to higher maternal morbidity and mortality rates throughout the country.

"A lot girls are dropping out of school and getting married at an early age," points out Zambia's Gender and Child Development Minister Inonge Wina. "The reasons for such actions are many. Peer pressure and poverty are some of the reasons often [given] advanced," added the Minister. "It should be noted that a girl that is married off at a tender age loses out on a lot of opportunities both economically and health-wise," she continued.

"Studies indicate that girls who marry later and delay pregnancy increase their chances of staying healthier, better their education and build a better life for themselves and their families. However, girls that get married at a young age face a number of challenges such as complications during pregnancy and childbirth. These are the leading cause of death in young women. The government is doing everything possible to encourage young girls to continue with their education, finish school and be able to have a family for which they can adequately plan for," Minister Wina further outlined.

Despite the physical damage and the persistent discrimination to young girls, little progress has been made toward ending the practice of child marriage. In fact, the problem threatens to increase with the expanding youth population in developing countries.

It is for this reason that the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, with support from the United Nations and along with other line ministries and Cooperating Partners, embarked on a nationwide campaign to end child marriages in Zambia, which was officially launched by First Lady Dr. Christine Kaseba in Chipata Eastern Province.

UNFPA will in 2013 work with the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs to invest in programs that will enforce national legislation against child marriage, support information sharing with communities to transform negative traditional norms that influence child marriages and create safe spaces for girls affected and at risk of child marriage, and other debilitating life situations.

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