DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka
WHEN Mary Katunga (not real name) from Kalinde area about 65 kilometres from Katete town was a 12, she went to start a new life with her uncle.
However, while her cousin attended to school, Mary was made to work as an unpaid maid in her uncleâ€™s home. Mary, now 17, could not refuse the offer from her uncle after losing both her parents to a road traffic accident in Kalindeâ€™s Chiwoko area.
She did not know what she was going into.
Her uncle later forced her to marry an older man, who frequently abused her. She had no say to whatever decision the husband made.
Even though she had wanted to continue with her education, her uncle did not give her that opportunity and not even the husband.
It was not long before she became pregnant with their first child.
When girls give birth at a young age, the risks of suffering painful complications and long-term discomforts are very high.
Having to care for a baby also meant that Mary was unable to continue her education, something which depressed her.
â€œI saw my cousin leaving for school every day with her books and bag. I was so envious and could not say anything, I was so jealous, too. I wanted to study and get clever, too, and get financially independent one day,â€ she said.
Maryâ€™s husband was keen to have a large family to help him with the family business. By the age of 15, Mary had two children. Her husband was killed in an incident of violence that happened in Kafumbweâ€™s area near the Mozambique border.
But widowed at a tender age, Mary feels she missed an opportunity that would have changed her life forever.
Mary is among the many adolescents who dropped out of school for various reasons among them early pregnancy.
In Zambia, especially in rural areas, there are concerns about the high rate of pregnancy-related school dropouts.
This plague undermines poverty-reduction programmes, the route towards gender equality and the very idea of equality of opportunity and education for all in the country.
The practice is so widespread that it does not come as a great surprise to most families in rural areas where teenagers become pregnant and their right to education is undermined.
The case of Mary is one of a thousand girls that have stopped school due to forced marriages and yet charters have been signed, policies have been made but very little progress seems to be taking place.
And headman Kalinde said most parents in rural areas are peasant farmers with very little knowledge on the rights of children, especially education.
The headman said violence against children is still rife in Katete district and other areas.
â€œAmong the common forms of violence here in my area and surrounding villages are child marriage, rape, child labour and neglect particularly of orphaned children,â€ he said.
The traditional leader noted that traditional practices have caused the violation of childrenâ€™s rights adding that the practice is worryingly more prevalent among girls.
Headman Kalinde said although laws against child marriage exist, the practice is upheld in part by tradition, poverty and gender inequality.
â€œAccess to education for girls can help prevent child marriage. Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. Child marriage robs girls of opportunities to thrive. It also puts them at risk of early pregnancy, and effectively ends their education.
As traditional leaders, we have done our best and change is gradual, hoping one day these traditional practices which undermine childrenâ€™s rights will be curbed,â€ he said.
Headman Kalinde said there is need for the Government to put up youth recreation centres in the rural areas where young people can be engaged in career building activities, while they are away from school.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), child marriage is defined as the marriage of a boy or girl below 18.
Marriage before the age of 18 is a violation of human rights. Yet, early marriage prevails across Zambia and the worldwide.
Cases of teenage pregnancies are no longer bizarre in both urban and rural communities.
Several girls fall pregnant before 18. Many others get married before they are 16. Zambia, like many other African countries and the world at large, has not been spared from early, forced and child marriages.
The Zambian government, traditional and community leaders, the church and other stakeholders have risen against child marriages, a discrimination that undermines womenâ€™s rights, the right to education and equal opportunities.
Zambiaâ€™s teenage pregnancy statistics put Zambia as the 3rd highest in Sub-Sahara Africa, with 143 per 1000 between 15 and 19.
School dropouts due to pregnancy increased to 17,600 between 2013 and 2014, according to the latest Demographic Health Survey.
Zambia has the 5th highest adolescent birth rate in Sub-Saharan Africa. About 28 percent of adolescent girls become pregnant before the age of 18.
Moreover, according to the 2010 census of population and housing, the adolescent birth rate in Zambia stands at 146 births per 1000 women aged between 15 and 19 years.
Now, pregnancy-related school dropouts have become a matter of public concern in Zambia.
In 2014, according to statistics at Zambiaâ€™s ministry of General Education, at the secondary school level, about 13,200 cases have been recorded; while 4,800 cases have been recorded at the primary school level.
As though this was not enough, usually, girls, who leave school due to pregnancy, do not return to school after childbirth.
In Zambia, the government has enacted a re-entry policy, but it has not been successful because of stigmatization and other studentsâ€™ prejudice.
A solution to the problem is imperative for the future of Zambian women and the country at large.
Ministry of General Education director open and distance education Bridget Moya said schoolgirls who become pregnant have fewer opportunities to complete their education after childbirth and have fewer opportunities for socioeconomic advancement.
She has since called on adolescent girls especially those in schools not to engage in activities that will affect their progress in school.
â€œAs government we are doing our best to ensure that children remain in school and get a quality education but this is not the task of government alone, pupils and parents and guardians too have a role to play in ensuring that children get the education they need,â€ she said.
In many Zambian communities, marrying off girls in exchange for livestock and other goods is still not viewed as violence against them, or indeed child abuse.
Itâ€™s not easy to change such practices that have been viewed as normal for so many years within a short span of time.
Protecting children from harmful practices is of critical relevance for the realization of childrenâ€™s rights.
Across communities countrywide, children have been subjected to various forms of harmful practices, some better known and others that may remain undocumented.
Common for most of these practices is the devastating consequences on the childâ€™s life, development, health, education and protection.
DOREEN NAWA, Lusaka