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Raise marriage age to 21

IN ZAMBIA, early marriages remain the biggest challenge facing most young girls in rural communities and those vulnerable in society. This practice, which endangers the lives and livelihoods of the young victims, is deeply-rooted in cultural norms. It not only violates human rights laws but also threatens the stability and economic development of the country.
Studies have shown that the longer girls stay in school they are less likely to engage in early marriages. It was, therefore, welcome news to learn that chiefs from four Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries have recommended raising the age of marriage from 18 to 21 to give girls an opportunity to mature and acquire higher education.
Chiefs from Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe, in a declaration after three days of deliberations at a Women for Change/Plan International-organised conference last week, decided to take affirmative action in view of the high prevalence of early marriages.
They noted that the high rate of early marriages in the region has had serious negative consequences on education, health, dignity and well-being of children, especially girls.
Statistics have shown that early marriages are widespread in Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe; with Malawi and Zambia having the highest prevalence of about 50 and 42 percent respectively.
In Africa, about 45 African countries have enacted laws that make education free and compulsory, while in four countries, education is free but not compulsory. While 14 of the 45 countries that make education free and compulsory have also set the minimum age of marriage at 18 for boys and girls.
Unfortunately at 18 years, most children will only have completed secondary school and most will not have yet entered any institution of higher learning to undertake studies that can empower them for the future; that is why this recommendation by the chiefs is commendable.
Ending early marriage is related to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Every Woman Every Child initiative and efforts aimed at reaching Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) 3, 4 and 5 that promote gender equality, reduce child mortality and improve maternal health. Continued cases of early marriage have hindered the achievement of these MDGs in most of these countries in the region.
Ending such marriages will help Zambia and other countries within the SADC region to achieve the MDGs aimed at eradicating poverty, achieving universal education and combating HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases.
Most girls who get married very early or before they acquire life and professional skills, or establish any social networks end up being disadvantaged financially. Because of this, such girls maintain a low status in their respective, making their families vulnerable to an intergenerational cycle of poverty that hinders any meaningful development.
Various studies have shown that societies and countries that have invested in girls’ education and development have recorded positive economic benefits. Increased education for girls has led to lower child and maternal mortality, lower birth rates, and higher female participation in more leadership and decision-making positions.
Since early marriages are complex and deeply-rooted in gender inequality, tradition and poverty it is important that chiefs have taken a leading role in fighting this practice; chiefs command a lot of respect and authority among their subjects.
As custodians of tradition, norms and values, chiefs will safeguard the physical, psychological and social development of all children especially girls who are mostly disadvantaged. The chiefs will campaign for positive cultural values that promote community ownership of children and endeavour to protect the life and dignity of girls.
“We shall introduce by-laws in our chiefdoms to abolish negative cultural and traditional practices and customs that promote child marriages,” the chiefs declared.
In addition, the chiefs will advocate for the enactment or review of laws that guarantee the punishment of perpetrators of early marriage; and to establish safe houses for survivors of harmful traditional practices.
The traditional rulers hope to engage various governments to domesticate international instruments that safeguard the rights of girls and boys.
And to collaborate with other stakeholders to mobilise resources for the implementation of their declarations.
The conference was attended by 24 traditional leaders, among them paramount chiefs, senior chiefs, chiefs and their representatives.
Remember, children are our future, until next week, take care.; gender@daily-mail