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Child marriage robs nation of women’s contribution

CHILD marriage in Zambia has continued to be a problem affecting many communities.
In most communities, especially rural areas, girls as young as 13 are taken into marriage at the expense of their education and well-being in the hope that families would come out of poverty.
However, this is not the case for many, as child marriage continues to perpetuate the cycle of poverty and also increasing the illiteracy levels in the country. Child marriage also contributes to increased poor health among girl children.
Most girls taken into marriage suffer violence at the hands of their spouses. This negatively impacts on overall development and stability of the country.
Government is alive to the problem of child marriage in Zambia as it is considered a negative vice that contributes to the impoverishment of girls.
According to statistics contained in a Panos Institute Southern Africa community booklet on child marriage in Zambia, the country has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. The figures indicate that 42 percent of women aged between 20 to 24 years marry by the age of 18.
These high rates of child marriage are despite the fact that Zambia is a signatory to two key treaties at the international level relating to children.
These are the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which is the most comprehensive treaty on children’s rights covering the four principles – best interests of the child, the right to survival and development, the right to participation and to be heard – and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which reflects most of what is contained in the CRC.
Despite being party to these agreements, the number of girls forced into marriage is still high and worrisome in most cases. Perhaps, specific regulation relating to child marriage is ideal in this case.
According to the Zambian Constitution (Amendment Act No. 2 of 2016), children’s rights include the right to identity, nationality, education and legal protection, among others.
The Constitution further defines a child as any person aged 18 years or below, just like the way the CRC defines it. Further, young people are protected from exploitation under the bill of rights in the Constitution.
Other pieces of legislation protecting children in Zambia are the Penal Code that looks at the exploitation of the child. There is also the Anti-Gender Based Violence Act and the Anti GBV Fast Track Courts.
The Intestate Succession Act and the Employment of Young Persons and Children Act regulate the employment of young persons and children.
Clearly, Zambia has a wealth of legislation to address depravities affecting girl children, including against child marriage.
However, these laws have not been able to yield meaningful results that show a reduction or complete elimination of child marriage in the country. The vice has continued to grow.
A number of reasons have been put across for this development, including the differences in the definition of the child, especially under customary law as regards marriage.
As mentioned earlier, the Constitution has defined a child as a person below the age of 18, while an adult is one who is 19 years old and above. But this is not how the customary law looks at a child when it comes to marriage.
Most girls in rural areas have been forced into marriage because they have reached puberty despite the fact that they are still young.
The traditional law regards a child who has come of age as being ready for marriage, hence a number of children have ended up being married off.
Although the 2014 National Gender Policy has provided for specific measures to curb traditional and cultural practices which inhibit the advancement of women, men and children by engaging traditional leaders as champions of change, child marriage has continued to happen in most chiefdoms.
The policy also identifies harmful or negative traditional practices that infringe on girls’ rights and revising syllabus content of girls and boys undergoing initiation ceremonies to include values that promote traditional and cultural values.
The policy allows for the creation of awareness regarding ill-effects of forced and child marriages on girl children and lobbies for elimination of negative cultural and traditional customs that inhibit equal participation of men and women in traditional governance and other grassroots structures.
The policy is currently being reviewed to ensure that it is aligned to the Sustainable Development Goals, Agenda 2063, Revised SADC Protocol on Gender and Development and Seventh National Development Plan (7NDP), among others.
Harmonisation of the definition of the term child must be done now. The subsidiary laws must be amended to be in conformity with the supreme law of the land.
The Penal Code, Intestate Succession Act, Employment of Young Persons and Children’s Act must be amended.
Further, the pronouncement by Government to review the Marriage Act to describe a child as any person below the age of 21 is giving hope in the fight against child marriage.
The Constitution defines a child as anyone below the age of 18 years while the Marriage Act indicates that a child above 18 but below 21 years can get married with consent from parents.
It is expected that the review of the Marriage Act will enhance the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This is because child marriage is standing in the way of progress towards many of the 2030 global goals and Zambia’s Vision 2030, including the 7NDP.
It is important that a girl remains in school because when she is excluded she becomes invisible and powerless and her future is blurred.
Child marriage locks away women’s enormous potential to help solve global problems.
The author is Zambia Daily Mail senior reporter – features.