WE welcome, wholeheartedly, the strong warning to parents and guardians by Her Royal Highness Chieftainess Mwanjawanthu of the Nsenga-speaking people of Eastern Province against marrying off their school going girl children, a practice she described as basically digging poverty graves for them.
We also conquer with the Chieftainess’s observation that forcing children into early marriage is simply to deny them access to education which is an outright violation of their mandatory right to education.
Chieftainess Manjabantu’s warning to headmen in the habit of abetting this practice is also timely because child marriage is one serious problems that requires concerted efforts to end.
But what makes the Chieftainess’s call rather special is because she is not just speaking from without but rather basing her observation on what her community has witnessed and experienced firsthand.
Chieftainess Mwanjabantu’s area, like many other rural communities in Eastern Province have experienced some of the highest cases of child marriages in Zambia as compared to other areas.
The 2007 Demographic and Health Survey found the rate of child marriage to be as high as 60percent in Eastern Zambia as compared to other places of the country like the capital Lusaka which was at 28% – and there has not been much change in the national prevalence rate to date.
Suffice to say that overrally, Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with 31percent of women aged 20-24 years married by the age of 18.
Child marriage in Zambia may be more prevalent than we think. The birth registration rate of 14percent makes it difficult the exact age of millions of girls involved.
Child marriage in Zambia is driven by traditional practices and beliefs, and the low social status assigned to women and girls.
Initiation ceremonies for girls who reach puberty prepare them for marriage and gender responsibilities as defined by culture.
Cultural practices such as polygamy also drive child marriage in Zambia, as young girls are married off to older men who are respected in their communities.
Poverty also exacerbates child marriage. Over 60.5percent of the population live below the poverty line, and families see child marriage as an opportunity to benefit financially from the bride price they receive for their daughter.
Girls’ lack of access to education also significantly contributes to the likelihood of child marriage.
UNFPA found that 65percent of women aged 20-24 with no education were married or in union by the age of 18, compared to only 17% of women with secondary education or more.
All in all, the problem of child marriage is much bigger than we can imagine and calls for concerted effort to deal with.
Particularly, traditional leaders need to take a leading role in fighting this malpractice because, most often than not, some of them have been found to be in the habit of abetting it rather than fighting it – obviously for financial gain.