MANSA, 20 December 2010 (IRIN) – The minimum legal age for marriage in Zambia is 18, and parental consent is required if a girl or boy is 16-17. Anyone under 16 is a minor, and defilement of a minor is a serious offence, punishable by imprisonment of up to 25 years.
Patricia was 12 when she married John, four years her senior.
“My parents said they needed to benefit [from my dowry] before they die, and that’s how they ordered me to stop going to school and get married to him… They charged him 500,000 kwacha [US$110] as bride price; he paid half and they gave him a field of maize [Zambia’s staple food] to cultivate for them,” she told IRIN.
After six years of marriage, Patricia has three children, has not returned to school, and is having a torrid married life.
“He beats me up very much and insults me saying my parents did not teach me properly, that I am very dirty and childish. He also has girlfriends, which I don’t like, but when I tell my parents about it, they say he will stop; they tell me that all men are like that,” Patricia said.
Early and forced marriages are common in Luapula Province, northern Zambia, where the incidence of early pregnancy and under-age marriage is estimated at about 70 percent among teenage girls, according to the UN population agency (UNFPA), which also pegs school drop-out levels at around 60 percent for girls aged 13 or 14.
Pascal Salimu, an UNFPA gender officer in Luapula Province, which has a population of 800,000, said poverty and tradition were behind child marriages, with the remote rural areas worst affected.
“Marrying off young girls is a tradition here… People [in rural areas] perceive a girl child as a source of wealth, and would rather give the girl into marriage to raise funds for educating the boy child,” Salimu told IRIN.
High maternal mortality
Zambia’s maternal mortality rate (MMR) of 591 per 100,000 live births is one of the highest in the world, according to the 2008 Demographic Health Survey, the most recent. No study has been done at national level to determine the contribution of early marriages to the country’s high MMR, but Salimu said regional research had shown a high correlation between the two.
“Women who die in childbirth are mostly young; either there is prolonged labour, or there are other complications. Our recent study in Luapula’s Mwense District found that about 30 percent of all maternal deaths involved young children,” he said.
Luapula has one of the country’s gloomiest social indicators: the poverty level in some towns is as high as 78 percent, against the national average of 64 percent. HIV prevalence is also higher in the province, compared to the national average of 14.3 percent of sexually active adults aged 15-49. HIV infection among pregnant women in Luapula is 18 percent, with mother-to-child transmission at 40 percent.
One parent in Mansa, the provincial capital of Luapula, who gave his name only as Mwewa, told IRIN early marriages were an effective tool for safeguarding the health of children and upholding family honour. “I would rather my daughter is married early before she ‘knows’ the world. I don’t want her to become pregnant or end up contracting HIV because these children of nowadays know a lot of things, and whether you like it or not they already practice these things.”
Grace Mwendapole, a programme unit manager in Mansa for Plan International, a child rights organization, said early marriages were a violation of the children’s basic rights to a safe childhood, education, good health, and being able to make decisions about their own lives, and perpetuated gender-based violence.
“Because most girls are married off to older men, they have to live in abusive relationships [and] the poverty cycle continues. Some of them suffer from various complications [while giving birth] and some of them even end up dying,” she told IRIN.
Marriages in Zambia can be customary, legal or religious, but religious unions are not recognized by the state. Experts blame customary marriages for fuelling child unions, as they often disregard the law in that they are arranged without the bride’s consent.
“What is sad is that despite all the conventions we have signed [the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women], Zambian law does not even have any definition of early marriage. What we are talking about is, in fact, not even early marriage but child defilement – that is what it should be called,” Mwendapole said.
“If we bring in [the] term of ‘early marriage’ it complicates the whole thing.”
Traditional leaders taking the lead
Some traditional leaders in Luapula Province have begun acting against child marriages. Chief Kasoma Lwela, a traditional ruler in Mansa, dissolved 15 child marriages in 2010 alone, and in the process sent about 12 girls back to school.
“Under-age marriages are rife in my area, and are affecting the education of girl children and exposing them to HIV and AIDS at a tender age. Early marriages are exposing young girls to complications when giving birth, resulting in increased maternal and infant mortality,” he told IRIN. He intends to dissolve all child marriages in his jurisdiction through the traditional courts.
Elicho Bwalya, the provincial medical officer, said government had intensified awareness-raising campaigns to curb teenage pregnancies and child marriages in Luapula.
With support from UNFPA, the government has so far trained 56 health staff in long-term family planning methods, a further 49 in emergency obstetric and neo-natal care, and 1,010 community workers in family planning promotion and distribution of materials across the province, he said.
“This situation of having children carrying their fellow children [in pregnancies] is making our healthcare programmes very difficult to implement, because we are talking to immature people,” Bwalya said.
“We end up with a lot of diseases in the community, affecting mothers, affecting children, and this will consequently translate to more poverty at national level.”