Child Marriage at a Crossroads

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By Ciaran O'Reilly 

International Women's Initiative Staff Writer

Zimbabwe has raised the bar through its recent constitutional ban on child marriages, while last year Malawi made a similar move. Zambia looks set to continue the trend in Southern Africa with the impending passing of its Marriage and Child Codes bills, as well as Gender Policy. Is Africa beginning to face up to its epidemic of child marriage?

Worldwide, more than 700 million women alive today were married before their 18th birthday, with  1.2 billion girls predicted to become child brides by 2050 if progress is not made in reducing the trend. Recent studies have shown that child marriage continues to be a significant problem across much of Africa, with Sub-Saharan Africa on the path to doubling its number of child brides by 2050, surpassing South Asia in gaining the largest global share.

In light of the recent court ruling and in the context of these statistics, civil society has called on Zimbabwe's neighbours to step up their efforts against child marriages. With one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world – at 42% of women between the ages of 20 and 24 married before they turn 18 – Zimbabwe's neighbour Zambia is struggling to deal with the phenomenon. In many parts of the country, it has long been seen as just another aspect of local culture and a means of reducing the burden of families fighting to feed and educate several children. Despite several different laws, a customary legal system and long-held local beliefs allow girls to be married as soon as they have reached puberty.

Zambia is of course not just influenced by regional developments, research studies and the pressure from civil society, but is also bound by its obligations under both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the African Charter on Children's Rights. The latter makes explicit reference to child marriage in Article 21(2), stating that 'Child marriage and the betrothal of girls and boys shall be prohibited and effective action, including legislation, shall be taken to specify the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years and make registration of all marriages in an official registry compulsory.'

The impending submission of the Marriage and Child Code Bills is intended to address the inconsistency between customary and statutory laws, and has been presented as one example of the efforts Zambia is making against child marriage. It is also a move welcomed by main opposition party, the United Party of National Development (UPND), a further indicator of the cross-party efforts developing in a country often struggling with divisive and populist politics.

Dismantling child marriage of course will require much more than the passage of laws and policies – it requires a hard-fought battle against deeply-engrained attitudes for some portions of African society, themselves reinforced by the realities of extreme poverty and the burden of rearing a child. Zambia's First Lady Esther Lungu has made it a personal mission to lead this fight against gender-based violence and early marriages. Across numerous events and media outlets, she has publicly denounced child marriage as unwanted and unneeded within Zambian society and appealed to men and boys to take the lead in tackling the issue.

Meanwhile, Gender Minister Professor Nkandu Luo is also publicising recent concerted efforts to fight child marriage, within a wider campaign against gender-based violence and gender inequality. Speaking recently, Minister Luo has said that 'enactment of the Marriage Bill is another intervention, that government is working on in order to prevent and curb early marriages.'

Key to the success of the anti-child marriage campaign in Zambia so far has also been the involvement of traditional leaders. By educating and empowering chiefs and headmen about the realities and impact of child marriage, campaigners have found a powerful and influential voice within Zambian society. These traditional leaders have come out strongly against child marriage, commanding and imploring their communities to follow suit and recognise the dangers of the practice on the girls involved and on the communities as a whole. What remains to be seen is whether all of the rhetoric and the passing of legislation will translate into real changes in attitudes and practices in communities across Zambia.

The prediction regarding the level of child marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2050 may still come to be, but countries such as Zimbabwe, Malawi and now Zambia are showing signs of finally tackling the plight of child marriage. The excuse of cultural preservation is no longer accepted by Africans themselves, who are now recognising the devastating effects of child marriage for the children involved and their societies at large. With the progressive advances made in countries like these, we may yet see Africa turn the tide and become the continent which champions children's rights as the global leader in the fight against child marriage.