ZIO MWALE, Lusaka
AT age 13, Bridget Kasakula was being prepared for marriage. Marriage negotiations were already been done and alangizi were preparing the immature girl for a traditional send-off when she defied her parent’s decision to take her to her suitor’s home.Bridget was in Grade Eight at Kawambwa Central Secondary School when she fell pregnant, provoking the common reaction by parents faced with such a situation.
But her determination to right her wrong seems to have paid off and today, Bridget, aged 21, is in Grade 12 at the same school, thanks to Youth Support Initiative (YSI), an organisation that helps adolescents to overcome social vices and mould them into productive self-reliant individuals.
In Muyembe village, 25 kilometres from Kawambwa district, Bridget is a well-known pro-girls’ education activist. During school holidays, she takes a leading role in sensitising community members on harmful effects of early marriages and teen pregnancies; traditional practices that have seen lots of young people trapped in the poverty cycle.
It was in 2012 while doing Grade Eight at Kawambwa Central Secondary school that Bridget’s marriage preparations started, though without her consent. She could not overrule her parents because in her community, when a girl reaches puberty or when she gets pregnant, regardless of age, she is considered ripe for marriage.
“When I fell pregnant, my parents wanted to marry me off, also because they had been having challenges paying my school fees. I didn’t want to marry, although things looked like I had no option, I had to find a way out,” she narrates.
A pregnancy at the age of 13, made Bridget realise that she wasn’t ready for marriage and the responsibilities that come with it.
Going through marriage rites was a bitter pill to swallow because she had a dream to complete her education and live a better life thereafter, away from the village.
“The moment I fell pregnant, I knew that I would be forced to marry because in my village, once a girl falls pregnant, then she’s ready for marriage,” she said.
While her marriage preparations were being arranged, her aspiration to become an agriculturalist helped her find a way out of what seemed like an impossible situation.
YSI child rights activists happened to be in Muyembe village at the right time. When Bridget learnt about the campaign they were doing in her village, she ran to them, shared her story and asked them to rescue her from the impending marriage.
“When I told them my story, they got touched. Immediately, they visited my home and educated my parents on the negative effect of child marriage.
“Fortunately, my parents were convinced that I needed to go back to school. That’s how my marriage was cancelled and my mother offered to look after my child while I went to school,” Bridget said.
Inspired by Bridget’s determination to get an education, YSI offered her a scholarship which enabled her to go back to school after giving birth.
From 2014 when she went back to Grade Eight, she has learnt to focus on her education and the good future that she envisions for herself and her child.
Bridget is among other 75 beneficiaries in her area of the YSI programme that champions girls’ education while fighting against child marriage.
Health personnel at Muyembe Clinic are inspired by Bridget’s story and have been using her to motivate other young girls to postpone marriage and put a prime on their education.
YSI programme officer Andrew Chanda says society has an obligation to end child marriage and campaign for girls’ retention in school until they reach the completion point.
Mr Chanda said girls need to be in school because when they drop out prematurely, marriage is the most likely option they will settle for.
He noted that child marriages in Zambia are driven by negative traditional practices and beliefs, and the low social status ascribed to women and girls in rural areas such as Muyembe.
“In the villages, child marriages are triggered by initiation ceremonies and teen pregnancies. It‘s up to organisations like YSI to go out and educate parents on the benefits of education,” Mr Chanda explained.
“As an organisation, we believe that a child should be in school and not in marriage. Time and again, people have condemned child marriage but what these children need is education support.”
In its anti-child marriage campaign, YSI targets pupils, parents and teachers in a programme called parental engagement on girl child education and child marriage.
The organisation believes it is not enough talking to girlchildren because child marriages are often arranged by parents.
“As you heard from Bridget, it was very easy to convince her mother because we already have a sensitisation programme for parents. It was good that Bridget approached us for help because her mother was ready to marry her off,” Mr Chanda said.
Since its inception in 2003, YSI has reached out to 25, 000 young people in Zambia with health and education services, with the support of Global Children Fund (GFC).
“We have a lot of programmes on health and education. We also empower young people with skills; we provide advocacy on issues affecting children and community mobilisation on HIV/AIDS,” he explained.
GFC programme associate for Africa Bundie Kabanze said his organisation creates partnership with other organisations to find solutions to today’s most pressing challenges.
GFC is a Washington DC-based non-profit organisation whose mission is to transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children.
Mr Kabanze said the level of child marriage in Zambia is worrisome and the practice must be ended.
He said the scourge of child marriage may be more prevalent than what people think because Zambia records one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. About 31 percent of women in the country aged between 20 and 24 years married by the age of 18.
“The rates of child marriage vary from one region to another, and are as high as 60 percent in the country’s eastern region, and as low as 28 percent in Lusaka” Mr Kabanze said.
He said to curb child marriage, the country needs to fight drivers of the scourge – poverty and bad cultural practices.
Among the bad traditions is polygamy, which puts young girls at risk of getting married to older men.
ZIO MWALE, Lusaka