photo credit, Zambian daily mail
According to World Vision, Zambia has the highest rates of child marriages in the world, by the age of 18, 42% of the women between the age of 20-24 years were married. Currently, Zambia is ranked 16th among countries with the highest rates of child marriages in the world.
The current marriage act has established a legal age for marriage, and the penal code punishes anyone who has sex with any person under the age sixteen. These provisions though are rarely applied to customary law. Under statutory laws, child marriage is illegal and is considered a form of child abuse. The legal age for marriage in Zambia is eighteen for Females and twenty-one for Males. However, under traditional law marriage can take place at puberty and it is common for girls in Zambia to be married or have sexual relationships under the age of sixteen (world vision, 2015).
The first reason why this may be the case is the battle between customary laws and statutory laws. Before independence from Britain Zambia had two sets of distinct legal systems. One applying to Africans and another applying to Africans and Europeans. The legal system now is a mixture of both customary and statutory laws, in general customary or native laws do not give many rights to women and girls compared to statutory laws. For example, while some Zambian who live in urban cities are married in civil rights that are governed by the marriage act, which is non-discriminatory, in rural Zambia, people are still governed by customary laws. The problem comes when these two systems collide (UNESCO, 2013).
For example, “the marriage act says, the legal age for marriage is sixteen, and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is not a widow or widower needs written consent from the father (or mother or guardian if the father is dead or of sound mind). If the father refuses to consent, the child can apply to the high court judge to provide consent. Also, sex or sexual relations and contact with anyone under the age of sixteen is prosecutable with life in prison.
However, under customary law, the age for marriage is based on maturity, but the term maturity is not explicitly defined, and there is no minimum age. In this case, maturity is subjective and is dependent on what the elders deem as mature” (Ndulo, 2011). In some tribes, a girl or a boy can be married as soon as they go through the right of passage which is when they start puberty. It could be thirteen, twelve or fourteen and sometimes as soon as the child begins mensuration. In rural areas, it is not unheard of for girls to have sexual relations before the age of sixteen or be married and prosecution hardly ever happen. To add-on to this point, prosecutions are even harder because the rural culture does not see anything wrong with child marriage. In some rural areas of Africa, there are no courts, the chiefs or the elders of the land preside over disputes (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde, 2015).
Secondly, attitude towards girls, in many traditional cultures, parents favour boys, boys are supposed to go out work, hunt and bring home the meat and basically be breadwinners, while girls are supposed to stay at home in the kitchen and give birth. One study found that many parents have a view that educating girls is a waste of money, because, they will eventually be married off and their education will only benefit the husband and the husband’s family.
There is also a societal expectation that girls will have husbands that will provide for them, so investing girls is seen as a waste of money (UNESCO, 2013). In the same study, one parent was quoted saying “It is better to educate a boy because after all, most girls are very foolish, they get themselves pregnant and drop out of school. Why should I waste my money?” In other studies, they also found that many communities in Africa favoured marrying off girls at a fairly young age. And in most cases, the girl ends up dropping out of school once they are married to start families. This is common especially in Muslim communities where there is a practice of betrothing girls at a very young age, sometimes at birth and then marrying them off in late adolescence (UNESCO, 2013).
Thirdly, poverty, there cases where the parents see the girl as a way out of poverty, the perception is that through bride price/dowry, the parents have a steady flow of income. A recent study by UNICEF found that in every country where child marriage is prevalent, it is the poor and uneducated women that were most affected (UNICEF, 2014). Also in countries where 50% of women are married as children, the marriages are prevalent in rural areas. In some cases, girls are married off as a way of paying a debt.
A recent study in Africa found that dowry or bride price is one of the reasons why domestic violence is high. The original traditional value for dowry has been lost; dowry used to use as a form of appreciation on the part of the man to the woman family for looking after his wife to be (Nour, 2009). Currently, in some families, it is now used as a way to get out poverty. There are cases where even if a woman is being abused and run’s back to her parents, the parents will just take her back to the abusive husband. If they do not send her back, they risk losing his financial support (Lloyd & Mensch, 2008).
Furthermore, there is the idea of honour, in many communities in Africa, it brings great honour to the family if the girl is married off while she is still a virgin. In some cases, girls are married off early as young as 12, just because they are beautiful because the family is worried that they will start having sex early. (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde, 2015).
In conclusion, one way we could stop child marriages is educating and empowering women. Unless the general culture and attitude towards women and girls change worldwide and in particular Africa. Enacting laws will not have any effect on the levels of child marriages. Zambia, for example, has some of the toughest laws enacted to deal with child marriages. As conservatives will say “it is the culture that determines what happens in politics and not the other way around”. African cultures not (legislation or laws) must award more rights to women, and as the saying goes “educate a woman you, you educate the whole community”.
By Paul Mukube
World Vision Zambia. (2015). A Situation Report on Child Marriages in Zambia Retrieved from http://www.wvi.org/zambia/article/
Hari, P. (2013). Parents and community attitudes towards girls, participation in and access to education and science mathematics and technology Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/education/educprog/
Lloyd, C. B., & Mensch, B. S. (2008). Marriage and childbirth as factors in dropping out from school: an analysis of DHS data from sub-Saharan Africa. Population Studies, 62(1), 1-13.
Ndulo, M. (2011). African customary law, customs, and women’s rights. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(1), 87-120.
Nour, N. M. (2009). Child marriage: a silent health and human rights issue. Reviews in obstetrics and gynecology, 2(1), 51.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R., & Forde, D. (2015). African systems of kinship and marriage: Routledge.