NDANGWA MWITTAH, Choma
ACCLAIMED Indian business tycoon, investor, and philanthropist Azim Hashim Premji once said, “A girl-child who is even a little bit educated is more conscious of family planning, health care and, in turn, her children’s own education.”
Mr Premji’s view is one that is shared by many.
There is also a popular quote which says “if you educate a man, you educate one person. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation”.
It’s an often heard quote in development circles, including Zambia.
Nailed to one of the many tree trunks in the surroundings of Chamukwapulo Community School, somewhere in Sinazongwe district, is a fading sign that reads, “Educating a girl-child is educating the whole nation.”
One can tell it’s been there for quite some time.
The words and message it is carries are significant. However, as is the case in most developing countries, girls’ education, which has been identified as a United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that many countries are aiming to achieve by 2030, has had to compete with social ills such as early marriages and teen pregnancies.
SDG number four prioritises an inclusive and equitable quality education and life-long learning opportunities for all.
Whereas Government has been doing its part by coming up with a number of policies and projects such as the Keep Girls in School project under the Girls Education, Women Empowerment and Livelihoods (GEWEL) programme, the scourge seems to be far from ending.
However, with the coming on board of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), traditional leaders, and also the church, there seems to be hope.
In her recital poem, a Grade Six pupil of Gamela Community School in Chief Cooma’s area in Choma said, “I want an education; don’t deprive me of my right to it by marrying me off.”
Just like Chief Madzimawe in Eastern province, Chief Cooma of the Tonga-speaking people of Choma district has taken a strong stance on early marriages.
He has warned his subjects against the vice.
The traditional ruler says he will not hesitate to have anyone perpetrating the vice arrested and prosecuted by the courts of law.
“The First Lady, Mrs Lungu, is interested in seeing girls in school and if as a chiefdom we start tolerating things like early marriages and teenage pregnancies, we will be disappointing her. Please, let us make sure that we are not in the news for the wrong issues,” he told his subjects recently.
The chief said every parent should ensure that they educate their girl-children as opposed to marrying them off at a tender age.
The same is shared by his counterpart, Chief Chikanta of Kalomo district.
“It is the duty of every parent to ensure that their children are educated. In fact, what should be happening is that as parents, we must be teaching and encouraging our girl-children, and even boys on the importance of education. Then after that, that’s when they can start thinking of marriage,” he says.
To the girls, his message was simple and brief. “Concentrate on education and don’t think of marriage just yet.”
Apparently, eloping is quite common in this part of the country.
“You see, our young girls sometimes like putting themselves in these situations where they just elope with a man and marry themselves off,” Chief Chikanta said. He said such marriages will be annulled and the girls involved taken back to school.
He has also directed parents not to consent to any such marriages.
“Times are getting hard and the economy is not favourable to uneducated people. This is now time to start thinking of getting a better education before anything else,” he says.
But of course, that’s not to mean that there are no teen pregnancies.
“It’s just that I don’t have the figures but we do have such cases and it worries us. That is why we, through the royal council, go around the communities sensitising the subjects on the dangers of engaging in any such vices,” he says.
As a country, Zambia has been making a number of policy pronouncements that are aimed at ending child marriages and promoting equal access to education.
Recently, Minister of Gender Victoria Kalima announced that Government plans to revise the Marriage Act that will describe a child as any person under the age of 21.
Ms Kalima said the relevant laws need to be harmonised to strengthen the fight against early marriage and defilement.
At the moment, the law describes a child as anyone under the age of 16 while any person can marry at the age of 18.
And the Musokotwane Compassion Mission Zambia (MCMZ), a non-governmental organisation that looks into the rights of the girl-child, commends government measures to curb child marriages through the proposed Marriage Bill.
MCMZ executive director Genious Musokotwane said in a statement that the Marriage Bill, which is currently before the Ministry of Justice heading to Parliament, will help address bottlenecks in the fight against child marriage.
“But before enacting the Bill into law, we are aware of the Child Code Bill that is also before the Ministry of Justice which also seeks to address the age conflicts in defining a child among other matters. Our worry with the Marriage Bill is that it is not attainable and may seek amendments within a short space of time which might be costly for the nation,” he said.
And at the last United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, British Prime Minister Theresa May praised President Lungu for his efforts towards the fight against human trafficking, forced labour and also child marriage.
President Lungu and First Lady Esther have received many accolades for championing women’s rights.
Last year, Zambia developed and launched a five-year National Strategy on Ending Child Marriage.
As of last year, Government provided resources to ensure that 14,000 girls were put in school in 2016 and retained until they complete their secondary school education.