JACK ZIMBA, Mpika
WHEN Yanney Mabenga was 10 years old, her aunt arranged for her to be married to a man old enough to be her father. Frightened by the prospect of becoming somebodyâ€™s wife at a tender age, Yanney, with the help of another aunt managed to escape from her guardianâ€™s home. That was in 1976.
The little girl, who was orphaned from the age of two, grew up and completed her education, went to college to study purchasing and stores, and then had a successful career working for a timber company in Ndola.
Today, that little girl is a respectable woman, so respectable that she has her own throne and answers to a royal title â€“ Chieftainess Shimukunami VIII. She ascended to the throne in Lambaland in 2007.
Motivated by her own past experience, the chieftainess has made the fight against child marriage a priority in her chiefdom, using her own testimony as an example to discourage young girls from getting married.
Since 2008, the traditional leader has dissolved 10 marriages which involved underage girls in her chiefdom. One girl who was withdrawn from an arranged marriage managed to go back to school and is now training to become a nurse.
A few years ago, the chieftainess met the man who should, otherwise, have been her husband. She was overpowered by grief at the sight of a pitiful man in worn cloths.
â€œWhen I saw that man, I wept,â€ she said.
Perhaps what hit the chieftainess the most was the thought that her own future would have been wasted if she had accepted to get married then, instead of prioritising her education.
â€œI could have been that manâ€™s wife,â€ she told a hushed audience at a workshop on child marriages in Mpika.
The workshop, which was held under the theme: â€œEngaging Formal and Informal Child Protection Systems for Improved Child Well-beingâ€, was organised by World Vision Zambia.
Over 70 people attended the two-day forum, with representations from key stakeholders in the fight against child abuse and gender-based violence, including the government and police.
But the main focus was traditional leadership and the role it plays in the fight against child marriages and GBV, especially that most marriages involving young girls happen in rural parts of the country. Thirteen chiefs attended the workshop, among them Senior Chief Nalubamba, Senior Chief Nkula, as well as some chiefs from North-Western province.
According to official statistics by Government, the prevalence of child marriage has reduced from 42 percent in 2007 to 31 percent currently, although some key stakeholders doubt the accuracy of such data. The reason is simple; a lot of cases involving child marriages still go unreported.
Statistics indicate that Eastern Province has the highest incidence rate for early marriages at 60 percent, while Lusaka has the least at 28 percent.
Last year alone, World Vision withdrew 150 girls from homes where they had been married, with a good number of them being put back into school.
â€œWe need to declare war against child abuse and exploitation, if we donâ€™t, weâ€™re going to leave behind a community that is not safe for children, a community where childrenâ€™s dreams cannot be fulfilled,â€ said World Vision national child rights advocacy co-ordinator Lifuna Simushi.
And World Vision programmes manager, Clement Chipokolo, said the organisation decided to involve chiefs in the fight against child marriage because of the huge influence they have in society.
And, indeed, some communities where chiefs have been involved in ending child marriages, have recorded a notable decline in the practice.
Some of the success stories in the fight against child marriage came from Mpika itself, where Senior Chief Nkula and Chief Chikwanda have made some headway in ending child marriages and GBV through a model that involves community participation.
In the Chikwanda chiefdom, about 360 committees have been formed to fight the practice. The committees, by design, have more female representation to ensure that women, who are usually victims, are not discriminated against.
The anti-GBV committee in Mpika was formed in 2011 and was registered under the Registrar of Societies in 2013.
According to Chief Chikwanda, GBV incidences have been reduced by 50 percent since the formation of the anti-GBV committees.
Margaret Mwenge, is one of the leaders in the anti-GBV committees in the Chikwanda chiefdom. She said it was usually not easy to separate two young people who were married.
â€œSometimes we have to find relatives in a faraway town to stay with either the girl or the boy so that they do not meet, because when they live in the same area, it is easy for them to start living together again,â€ she said.
The work of the anti-GBV committee in Mpika is now being appreciated by the local police, who say they donâ€™t have adequate manpower and resources to police the countryâ€™s biggest district.
Both traditional leaders mete out stiff punishment on village heads who wittingly or otherwise allow child marriages to take place.
Chief Chikwanda has in the recent past revoked the appointment of five village headmen and replaced them with women.
Parents who marry off their underage children also face humiliating punishment by making them work in a common field called â€œMulima chi pubaâ€ or â€œthe foolâ€™s fieldâ€.
Chief Nkula has also passed a new by-law banning parents from sending their children into the bush to catch caterpillars. The caterpillar season in September coincides with the opening of the third term in the Zambian school calendar.
Chief Nkula, w h o spearheaded the formation and operation of the committees in Mpika when he reigned as Chief Chikwanda, is now trying to replicate the same efforts in Chinsali district, where the Nkula chiefdom is located.
About 33 schools in Chinsali now have child protection committees, while 462 village sub-committees have been formed.
Chief Nkula also spearheaded the formation of child protection committees in almost all the schools in Mpika. The role of the child protection committees is to promote childrenâ€™s rights. The chief made a deliberate inclusion of pupils in the committees.
He said it was important to involve pupils in child protection efforts and fight against child marriage, because adults have a tendency to hide information on child abuse.
The chiefs, who attended the workshop, also emphasised the need for Government to promote birth registration.
According to Chief Chikwanda, one of the biggest challenges in the fight against child marriage and defilement is the failure by parents or guardians of victims to provide evidence of their age due to lack of birth records.
The chief recently begun a campaign to encourage parents to register their children, and 244 births have been registered in Mpika in the recent past.
In 2013, World Vision helped to register 14,000 children who had no birth certificates across the country.
And Chief Chibwika of Mwinilunga said it was important for community leaders such as chiefs to be fully involved in the protection of children.
â€œThe future belongs to our children. Weâ€™re here to create an environment for the children and if weâ€™ve got such a problem such as the one weâ€™re seeing, definitely it does worry me and I want to be part of the solution,â€ he said.
At national level, Zambia is currently in the process of developing the National Strategy on Ending Child Marriages, whose vision is a Zambia free from child marriages by 2030. The strategy is expected to be launched in October.
While at international level, women empowerment is part of the yet-to-be adopted Sustainable Development Goals, United Nations targets that seek to address various social and economic ills globally.
And in November, Zambia will host the first ever African Union summit on child marriage.
It is estimated that without any interventions, 14 million girls under the age of 18 will be married in Africa every year. That translates into 39,000 girls every day.
Before the close of the workshop in Mpika, Chief Tundati of Luwingu, who was one of the delegates, received a report by telephone that a 70-year-old man was attempting to marry a 16-year-old girl in his chiefdom.
But some positive reports continue coming through. A few days after the workshop, on August 28, Chieftainess Shimukunami dissolved the marriage of a 14-year-old girl and a 20-year-old man. The girl had dropped out of school in grade 7 and the chiefainess is sending her back to school next term.
JACK ZIMBA, Mpika