In Zambia, the legal age for marriage is 18 and teenagers of 16 or 17 can be married with their parents’ consent. It is illegal for anyone of 15 years or younger to be married and ‘defilement of a minor’ is a criminal offence, carrying sentences of imprisonment up to 25 years. Despite the law, the practice of marrying off young girls is still common. In poor communities, families struggle to send their children to school and giving a young girl as a bride brings in welcome dowry money. Patricia was only 12 years old when she was forced to leave school and marry. Her husband’s family paid Patricia’s father around 110 dollars as a bridal fee and also presented them with a field of maize. After six years of marriage, Patricia has three children and is unhappy in her union, but knows she will never be able to return to her education.
In the northern province of Luapula, with a population of around 800,000, early forced marriages remain widespread, particularly in remote areas where poverty and custom dominate. Families often disregard the law and arrange unions for their young daughters, often with much older men. According to the UN population agency (UNFPA), school drop-out rates for girls aged 13 and 14 in Luapula Province are around 60 per cent. Education for girls is still seen as a luxury in this region, which remains one of the poorest in Zambia and girls are prized as a source of income.
But girls who are married off at a young age not only miss out on education, they are also exposed to the risks of contracting diseases such as HIV. HIV infection rates among pregnant women in Luapula are running at 18 per cent, with mother-to-child transmission at 40 per cent. Some families use the problem of HIV/AIDS as an excuse to marry off their daughters young. One father said “I would rather my daughter is married early before she ‘knows’ the world....or ends up contracting HIV.” Though marriage is believed to be a safeguard, what many parents fail to understand is the greater risk their daughters face from the complications of giving birth at a young age. According to the 2008 Demographic Health Survey, Zambia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with 591 women dying for every 100,000 live births. Medical experts believe there is a correlation between high maternal death rates and early marriage, because young girls more often suffer complications during childbirth. A recent study conducted in the Mwense District of Luapula, found that around a third of maternal deaths in the region involved women who were still themselves children.
Across Zambia, the adolescent birth rate is extremely high at 146 girls for every 1,000 between the ages of 15 to 19 years. UNFPA have been supporting the Zambian government by providing specialist training to health and obstetric workers and and promoting family planning campaigns. And some community leaders are now taking a stance against early marriages. In the Mansa region of Luapula Province, Chief Kasoma Lwela has dissolved 15 child unions this year, sending 12 girls back to school. Grace Mwendapole is a program manager for Plan International in Mansa and hopes attitudes will continue to change. Since Zambia is a signatory to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (and also to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women), Grace believes that the term ‘early marriage’ should no longer be used and giving away a young girl in marriage should only ever be described, and decried, as “child defilement”.