Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
A15-YEAR-OLD girl who was married to a 16-year-old boy was recently withdrawn from the marriage in Lusaka because, obviously, she is a child who needs to grow up.
The girl, who is pregnant, had married with the consent of her parents, mother in particular.
She was reluctant to leave her husband’s house because her mind was set on settling in her home and beginning a family of her own, even though she is still a child who needs to grow up and get socialised into our way of life in her parents’ home.
However, an organisation called Concerned Citizens for Justice and Human Rights rescued her from the marriage, of course for a good reason, and took her back to her mother’s home in Kanyama township.
You and I know that this non-governmental organisation (NGO) meant well because a 15-year-old child should have no business getting married, let alone having babies. Her biggest need right now is education so that she could get the empowerment to lead a productive and fulfilling life in future.
But sadly, she is already pregnant and we are not sure whether her withdrawal from marriage would indeed deter her from returning to her husband’s home.
Let’s face facts – the girl has already made a sexual debut – she’s not only sexually active, but pregnant for her husband. And on top of that, she dropped out of school in Grade Six.
If getting married was a choice she willingly made, is it possible to preach the message of abstinence to this school drop-out and ask her to delay marriage until she is old enough?
I am not just sure how we can make young girls who have dropped out of school appreciate the logic of delaying marriage until they are mentally and physically fit to marry.
It’s situations like this 15-year-old’s that make me wonder whether the practice of withdrawing girls and boys from marriage is an effective way of fighting child marriage.
This is the question I found myself asking at the weekend when news broke that over 30 girls aged between 13 and 17 had been withdrawn from marriages in Chibombo district of Lusaka.
The underage brides were taken out of their husbands’ homes by Concerned Citizens for Justice and Human Rights.
The organisation’s director, Richard Nkhuwa, was quoted by our Sunday Mail as saying that they had partnered with chiefs to end child marriages in Chibombo rural because they had noticed that the scourge was endemic.
Well, I know that there are so many child rights activists that have embarked on the noble campaign of rescuing minors from marriages, but my take is that reactive efforts in this campaign may not yield the intended results.
I would rather we took the proactive approach of making the girls appreciate the value of education so that they don’t have to choose marriage over school.
To do that, we need to make sure that girls and boys in every part of Zambia have equal access to education.
This means that rural communities, where the problem of child marriage is rampant, need to have primary and secondary schools within manageable walking range.
If we make education attractive, parents will have no reason to trade immature girls for the short-term benefits of lobola.
Actually, girls would themselves not accept to marry if they had schools within their vicinities and their parents could afford to provide all the school necessities.
Child marriages are most common in communities where poverty is at its peak and secondary schools are not easy to reach.
It is a fact that the prevalence of child marriage in Zambia is worrying, but what we need are effective ways of combating it. For example, UNICEF statistics indicate that 31.4 percent of women aged 20-24 years are married before the age of 18.
And a UNICEF survey in 2016 found that about 58.9 percent of girls aged 15-19 years were pregnant or had already given birth.
It’s in the poor communities where girls would opt out of school, usually after primary education and choose to marry. Poor parents would then seek solace in the highest lobola bidder to help them shoulder the ‘burden’ of feeding children and providing other necessities of life. Some parents would actually arrange marriage for their young daughters against their wish, mainly due to poverty.
Child rights activists may force the young girls out of marriage, but their efforts may not materialise into girl empowerment if they don’t help such girls to get an education.
Unless these NGOs had safe homes where they could keep the girls and put them in school, the girls are likely to return to their husbands’ homes.
In my view, the best interest groups could do is to identify girls and boys from vulnerable communities and help them get scholarships before they stray into the arms of suitors or potential wives.
And if they should embark on a campaign to rescue girls from marriages, they should also help to put them in school, if their parents can’t afford to do so.
Merely taking the girls out of marriage, then getting police to warn and caution their parents, as a reactive measure to the problem of child marriages may not help much.
Chances are high that when the NGO officials are out of sight, the girls would return to their husbands’ homes because they are out of school. Besides, they are already sexually active.
The sensitisation of parents in communities where child and early marriages are rife should be a continuous preventive measure.
Lest I’m misunderstood, there is nothing wrong with child rights activists rescuing minors from marriages, but rather my view is that prevention is better than cure.
Parents may be arrested for abetting a wrong and the minor’s husband arraigned for child defilement, but that won’t undo the damage done to the child bride.
It’s better for all stakeholders – parents, chiefs, community leaders, NGOs, and Government – to work at preventing child marriages than taking remedial measures whose success is not guaranteed.
The NGOs should actually lobby Government to build secondary schools in rural communities where such facilities are hard to reach, as a way of preventing child marriage.
At the moment, rural communities have considerable access to primary education but the sticky point is on access to secondary schools.
Concerned special interest groups should, for instance, identify needy rural communities with the purpose of engaging Government and donors to build boarding secondary schools in those areas.
Withdrawing girls from marriages is not enough because it’s not an effective way of fighting child marriage.
If I were to challenge NGOs that have been rescuing girls from marriages to share what they have done to empower those girls, very few, if any, would share any success story.
It seems some organisations are keen on withdrawing minors from marriages, but we don’t know the long-term effect of their efforts.
We – all stakeholders – need to go beyond the dramatic capturing of child brides and start providing real solutions to the problem of child marriage.
Prevention is the way to go.
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Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA