Analysis: KABAMBA MWANSA
EVERY girl child in a marriage is a vulnerable human being. This reminds us of who we are.Hearing words from a girl child who is forced into child marriage makes me cry and wonder if there a part of us which feels powerless and in need of curbing child marriage.
The family, community and the state need a personal, community, and social conversion which must provoke in each one of us the desire to curb child marriage.
This kind of conversion should begin with the renewal of our mindset through a new culture of “child safeguarding and care”, especially in our homes and institutions.
Child safeguarding means taking the necessary protective measures for the child’s safe consumption of any product, stair-gates, seat belts, protective footwear, glasses, basic hygiene and carefully protecting children from early marriage.
The definition of a child is complex for it embraces cultural, social, economic and psychological factors. In the same vein, the legal framework does not categorically define a child, especially from the individual and community perspectives.
This is also the case in Zambia. Nonetheless, according to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a child is defined as anyone from birth to the age of 18, unless the age of majority is attained earlier.
Zambia signed the CRC in 1990 and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child in 1992, but does not consistently employ the definitions contained in these conventions. Despite long-standing efforts to harmonize national law with these instruments, the end of childhood in Zambia is legally defined as between 16 and 18 years.
From the social point of view, a child can be understood based on the aspect of dependability, helplessness and a person who is in need of others to provide care, guidance and assistance.
Hence, a parent, a person with parental responsibility for a child, has an express liability; whoever is responsible for the child at the time. Failure by any responsible person is an offence of child cruelty on the grounds of failing to protect the child in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care.
According to the international convention, child marriage is a formal or informal union, including religious or customary marriage, of anyone younger than 18. However, the Zambian legal system is dualist in nature. As a result, marriages can take place in accordance with either customary or statutory law.
The Marriage Act of Zambia establishes the legal age for marriage at 21 years of age and requires that consent be obtained for anyone younger who wants to marry; although it doesn’t specify the person to consent.
For those requiring consent, section 33 stipulates that both parties must be at least 16 years old – or else the marriage shall be void.
Otherwise, the provision can be averted by an application to a judge of the High Court, who can consent to the marriage if the particular circumstances of the case are not contrary to the public interest.
A qualitative study on child marriage by Gillian Mann, Padraig Quigley and Rosal Fischer of Child Frontiers for UNICEF in the six districts of Zambia in April 2015, observed that the Marriage Act of Zambia is not absolute in terms of defining the minimum age for marriage; it is open to interpretation on the issue of consent or circumstances in which a marriage involving persons younger than 21 might take place.
According to the Penal Code Amendment Act of 2003, sex with anyone younger than 16 is prohibited.
There is need for a general awareness that penetrates the personal sphere which should include an orientation that respects the life of every child, including that of the unborn. This orientation can only be attained by a sacred approach to life which upholds the dignity of every child. Our approach in promoting the life of a girl child by avoiding early marriage shouldn’t only be a mere talk but a road to walk through together in bringing the plight of our girls to our fore as a nation.
Protecting the life of a girl must spring from the Christian principle of respecting and dignifying life, especially one which seems to be fragile. How can we gauge our strength if we cannot manage to protect those who are weak? Child marriage involves both girls and boys. The First Lady, Esther Lungu, noted that much emphasis is on the girl child because the impact of child marriage is more traumatic on girls.
In addition, to alleviate child marriages, we need a whole moral drift of society, and grasp how it eventually but inevitably affects the health of the girl child through marriage breakdown.
Protecting a girl child must begin from the smallest unit of our family ties, leading to a community responsibility and that of the state. In rural areas, chiefs, headmen and women should sensitise citizens on the importance of girl-child education against child marriage. Yet, we should note that respecting a girl child does not mean considering a girl child more important than a boy child.
It simply invites us to dignify and protect the gender that is most vulnerable to so many abuses.
Child marriage is detrimental to human development, an assault to the sacred nature of marriage and an injury to many human rights.
Therefore, there is need to strengthen the law in protecting the girl child from child marriage. Child marriage deprives our mothers of the free will either to consent to marriage or not.
Child marriage disorients our future mothers on the value and dignity of marriage. It wounds the development of our families for it delays our mothers’ understanding of marriage and family life since they are psychologically and socially abused.
For that reason, when we combat child marriage, we give to the present and the future generations opportunities of living in families and homes where they will become good wives and mothers, and good husbands and fathers.
Good parents will in return inspire others on the values of marriage and educate their children on the dignity of marriage while upholding the sacredness of marriage.
The author is a pastoral agent.
Analysis: KABAMBA MWANSA