New Legal case brings needed attention to child marriage in Zambia

Posted on 7 August 2011


Lillian Banda – Women News Network – WNN

Rural Zambian girls face danger in being forced to marry at a young age. Image: Saraat

Had it not been for the prompt action of a concerned community, Zambian 15-year-old Evelyn Mwale would still be trapped in a forced marriage.

In April 2011, the then14-year-old Mwale was told by her aunt and other family members that she had no choice; she must get married right away. She was also told she must immediately stop attending school so she could care for her husband and his family.

At the time, as an orphan with no parents, Mwale was living with her grandmother in the rural region outside the Zambian city of Kabwe. As a child, Mwale was forced to marry a stranger — a forty-five-year-old urban man from Ng’ombe who lived in a suburb of Zambia’s capital city Lusaka, approximately 158kms (98 miles) away from her grandmother’s home.

What started as an unfair advantage had been set. A 31-year-age-difference between the husband and his young wife marked a troubled, unequal and illegal marriage.

A few days later, Mwale’s husband was arrested and charged with ‘defilement of a minor’ after neighbors in Ng’ombe became aware, then alarmed, as they reported the matter to the local police. Following the husband’s detention three others involved with the forced marriage were also arrested.

“Child marriage is a fundamental violation of human rights,” said Mutegaya B. Julius in a October 2010 report from the Zambia – Children in Need Network. “Many girls are married without their full free and full consent,” he added.

Zambia is not the only place where child marriage occurs. It is a worldwide phenomenon. Commonly found in isolated rural areas where the level of law enforcement is challenged and the focus on public education is low. It is usually frowned upon in more urban areas.

“My aunt forced me to get married saying that a husband would take care of me and my grandmother as well,” recounts Mwale.

Psychological damage for girls who are forced into early marriage affect all aspects of a girl’s life. Girls who marry early can experience depression, fear and vulnerability, lack of personal protection, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation and extremely low self-esteem.

Although many countries have child protection laws that set the minimum age of marriage to 18 years without parental consent, a number of countries continue to struggle with the enforcement of these laws, including Zambia, who’s legal age for marriage (without consent) is 21.

“…discrimination against women is rooted in [Zambia]’s customary law, and it is so serious that it amounts to a breach of both their human and natural rights,” said a 2007 OMCT (World Organisation Against Torture) shadow report, “Human Rights Violations in Zambia,” presented to the 90th session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva.

With a parent or guardian’s consent, marriage of girls between the age of 16-20 in Zambia is allowed but it is completely prohibited for anyone under the age of 15.

An age difference of over 30 years between a young girl bride and her older spouse brings with it an imbalance of power that can lead to drastic levels of inequality for girls. With little power inside the marriage, domestic violence can occur as girls are often considered with dowries the ‘purchased property’ of a husband.

Forced unwanted sex with an older partner along with a lack of birth control is also an ongoing problem.

“The payment of bride price (malobolo) and the practice of early marriages under customary law in Zambia may have the effect of increasing the vulnerability of women and girls to violence at the hands of their husbands and parents-in-law,” continues Children in Need advocate Mutegaya Julius.

In 2007 in the rural village of Nsomaulwa the parents of a seventh grade girl-student, Getrude Chileshe, demanded that her teacher be charged for the alleged rape of their daughter. The charge was legally dropped though when the teacher offered to marry the Chileshe as his second wife.

A Zambia women’s health clinic in Livingstone. Image: Cordelia Persen

The offer came as a 50,000 Zambian kwacha ($10 USD) dowry. The marriage had one condition; that Gertrude’s schooling could not reach past the 7th grade. Because of the intent to marry and the dowry arrangement district Judge Philip Chisenga agreed; the charges of rape would be legally dropped.

Health consequences are also a tangible impact affecting those who marry early. Higher HIV rates and higher maternal mortality rates are found among the youngest Zambian wives.

“Adolescent mothers suffer from higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity and are particularly vulnerable to pregnancy-related conditions such as anemia, obstetric fistula, and post-childbirth septic infections…,” said a recent May 2011 statement by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) during the 49th session of CEDAW – the Committee on the Elimination of the Discrimination Against Women.

In adolescent pregnancy many young girls have bodies with hips that are not yet wide enough to deliver a baby. This can create a condition during childbirth known as ‘obstructed labor’ which can cause a youth to not only lose her baby while giving birth, but to lose her own life during childbirth as well.

Other dangers for girls in pregnancy include anemia, obstetric fistula and possible complications from unsafe abortion procedures.

Compared with women who are 20 years-of-age or older, girls who are age 10–14 are five to seven times more likely to die during childbirth. Girls who are 15–19 years old are twice as likely to die (UN 2006).

Evelyn Mwale’s marriage to a much older man placed her directly in the line of danger on both physical and psychological levels. While a grown woman finds it hard to tell her husband she does not want to have sex, a teenage girl has much more trouble just saying no; and especially asking an older husband to use condoms for birth control. The practice of ‘safe-sex’ is often a total mystery.

The Zambian belief that being married brings ‘virtue’ and will keep one safe and unlikely to contract HIV/AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), is a double standard for many girls who are forced to have sex with an older husband who often has had numerous sexual partners in the past.

While Evelyn’s situation has been difficult it is better than many other young married girls who have no one to save them. Mwale has been lucky. She is one of the ones who found rescue in her situation. But how many other cases of early marriage continue to go unreported and unrescued in Zambia’s most remote regions? And how many girls go without rescue worldwide?

The answer to these questions are unknown. There is currently no accurate way to compile separate data on child marriage in rural Zambia. The little data available is often placed in reports next to a variety of sexual problems and conditions.

Most government laws and policies are “child-blind” says Judith Mulenga, Executive Director of the Zambia Civic Education Association (ZCEA). “…politics in Zambia do not put children first,” added Mulenga. “Laws do not give equal protection to all citizens including children and there is chronic under-funding to national budget programmes that are meant to provide for the country’s most vulnerable children’s basic needs.”

In collaboration with numerous local community-based organizations ZCEA has been conducting local trainings and workshops on human rights and children’s rights in many of Zambia’s townships.

“The aim of this project is to have a nation where children’s rights are respected and upheld by all,” says ZCEA. Without enforcement of current laws, legislative measures to protect and empower rural girl children in Zambia still has a very long way to go.

“The absence of a social security policy for poor children and the consistent low allocation to social services demonstrates the lack of this government’s commitment to the realisation of children’s rights,” added Judith Mulenga.

The criminal case for Evelyn Mwale’s forced marriage is now in process toward its final legal decision. Moved from the courts in Lusaka to the Magistrate court in Kabwe where the crime occurred, the case also includes additional separate charges made against those who arranged the illegal marriage. These charges include ‘contributing to the defilement of a minor.’

Current Zambian Penal Code Admendment Act of 2003 which prohibits sex with anyone under the age of 16 brings with it a minimum sentence of 14 years imprisonment.

“The huge number of women who are illiterate and as a result are unable to claim their rights” is a factor that “inhibits progress,” said Zambia’s Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Winnie Sithole-Mwenda, in a recent 13 July statement before UN CEDAW in New York.

Surprising statistics tell us that an epidemic is occurring — a child is married every three seconds worldwide. Early marriage brings with it physical and emotional complications that can bring girls greater health risks, poverty through lack of education and low self-esteem. This 1:25 min August 4, 2011 video is a Thomson Reuters Foundation TrustLaw Women Initiatives production via Creative director Claudine Boeglin. Animation by Amelia Wong.