Child Marriage in Zambia

Child Marriage in ZambiaChild marriage, a formal or informal union involving a person below the age of 18, is an infringement upon internationally agreed human rights, diminishing young people’s ability to realize their rights to education, health, quality of life, safety and dignity. Child marriage rates in Zambia are some of the highest globally, but increasing action from the Zambian government and international organizations is leading to improvements in legal protection and changes in beliefs around child marriage.

Child marriage exposes girls to a range of challenges, including an increased risk of HIV transmission, domestic violence and maternal and infant mortality. Furthermore, early marriages can prevent girls from finishing their education, limiting their ability to reach their potential in the future. For these reasons, Sustainable Development Goal 5.3 aims to end child marriage by 2030.
The rates of child marriage in Zambia are among the highest in the world, predominantly affecting young girls. Although rates have fallen somewhat, in 2018, 44.4% of women in Zambia aged 20 to 29 were married as children.

Child Marriage in Zambia Falls Under Three Categories:

  1. Marriages between two adolescents, usually between the ages of 11 and 14.
  2. Intergenerational marriages in which an adolescent girl marries an older man, often twice her age.
  3. A tactical child marriage which is made in an attempt to avoid disgracing the family due to situations such as teenage pregnancy.

Poverty and Child Marriage

One of the biggest driving forces behind the high rates of child marriage in Zambia is poverty, a challenge that affects 60% of the population. Families marrying their daughters off in Zambia receive a lobola payment or a ‘bride price’. Consequently, a marriage can provide a family with vital income and the means to support other children through education. In this way, poverty and child marriage form a vicious cycle.
As aforementioned, the economic gain from child marriage can often push impoverished families into child marriages. However, the deprivation of education and employment opportunities created by child marriages perpetuates poverty. A UNICEF study from 2015 identified a clear link between higher child marriage rates and the lack of access to education and employment opportunities. These processes create an intergenerational cycle of poverty and young marriages.

Legal Discrepancies

Zambia’s legal system does not currently function in a way that can support ending child marriages. The country adheres to both statutory and customary laws, creating discrepancies and uncertainty around legal protections. According to statutory law, the 1964 Marriage Act states that marriage is only legal for those over the age of 21, although a person below this age may marry with parental consent. Statutory protection is insufficient to prevent child marriage, however, as the law does not specify a lower threshold at which parental consent cannot allow a marriage to take place. Furthermore, statutory law enables a high-court judge to grant consent for a child under the age of 16 to marry.
Customary laws determine the legality of marriage by the time at which a child reaches puberty, rather than a specific age. Statutory law states that nothing in the official Marriage Act impacts the validity of a marriage carried out in accordance with customary law. As a result of these vague and contradictory laws, there is insufficient legal protection for girls who reach puberty. Instead, girls who begin menstruation, usually around the age of nine to 13, often undergo an initiation ceremony where they receive education about marriage, caring for a husband and looking after a home.

Ending Child Marriage in Zambia

UNICEF and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) joined forces in 2016 to launch the Global Program to End Child Marriage, focusing on the 12 countries with the highest rates of child marriage. Zambia has been the focus of much of UNICEF and the UNFPA’s work. A 2017 report from the UNFPA recommended an approach to efforts to end child marriage in Zambia.
Firstly, efforts need to respect and incorporate different community values and systems across Zambia. This is particularly important when addressing customary law, as this is a key part of many communities’ histories. The UNFPA suggested efforts should start by aligning customary laws to an amended Constitution based on a clearer definition of marriage that states it as an act only lawful between two consenting adults. It suggests that customs and traditions around marriage may change over time through education campaigns focused on the impact that early marriages can have on children. Secondly, efforts must prioritize the safety of and care for adolescent girls, primarily through efforts to keep young girls in education. Some of the main reasons that young girls leave education and end up married are poverty, social vulnerability and teenage pregnancy.
According to the report, the creation of financial incentives for poor families to keep their daughters in school could overcome issues presented by poverty. Education campaigns, as well as the creation of ‘safe spaces’ for girls both in schools and in communities, could lower social vulnerability. Finally, lowering rates of teenage pregnancy requires long-term planning to improve sex education and reproductive health services across Zambia.

A Zambian Community Case Study

The UNFPA-UNICEF Global Program to End Child Marriage has supported the Zambian government-led Community Welfare Assistance Committee (CWAC) in the Zambian regions of Katete and Senanga. This approach focuses on the two points raised above: sensitivity to varying community values and safety for young girls.
Based on a USAID approach used to engage Zambian communities in HIV/AIDS prevention, this project to minimize child marriage uses community-based workers who understand the community and already have their trust. This allows the CWAC approach to be appropriate and targeted. Community workers with the CWAC look for signs of vulnerability and identify risk factors for young girls. Once they have identified those in need of help, workers bring in a network of community members to support the family and engage in discussions around their child’s wellbeing.
In 2020, there were 140 trained CWAC workers across Katete and Senanga. In this same year, the project helped 49 girls across the two regions avoid premature marriage. Although there is currently limited data to assess the impact of this project fully, CWAC workers have already had a positive influence on the communities they have been working in, as evidenced by the number of girls saved from child marriages.

Caring for Survivors of Child Marriage in Zambia

According to suggestions, preventative measures addressing child marriage must coincide with efforts to support survivors to overcome the barriers that they face. World Vision International followed the story of Tichoke, a girl from Zambia who married when she was only 14. Tichoke’s older husband mistreated her and she struggled to provide for her new family. Amid her struggle and facing little support from her parents, Tichoke reached out to some local counselors, supported by World Vision Zambia. With their help, Tichoke escaped her marriage and went back to school. As of 2019, Tichoke was in grade 9 and was hoping to work as a nurse when she graduated.
For child brides like Tichoke, their families’ decisions needn’t be the end of their goals and aspirations.
As part of the 2020 U.N. Women program, the Zambian government established a scheme of giving scholarships to survivors of child marriage in an attempt to encourage them back into education. Not only would this sort of scheme benefit the victims of child marriage, but it could lead to a significant increase in the country’s productivity and output. A 2017 World Bank study estimated that Zambia could increase its GDP by USD 68.2 million by ending the practice of child marriage.

The Future of Child Marriage in Zambia

Zambia continues to have some of the highest rates of child marriages in the world. However, international efforts such as the UNFPA-UNICEF program and increasing action from the Zambian government suggest that the country is heading in the right direction. Alongside general poverty alleviation support, a focus on mitigating factors and caring for survivors spark hope in the fight against child marriage in Zambia.

– Polly Walton
Photo: Flickr