On 12 August 2021, young people across Zambia made sure their voices were heard in a national election that saw record-breaking numbers of youth turn out to vote. Opposition leader Hakainde Hichilema was declared the winner defeating the incumbent, President Edgar Lungu, in a landslide victory by over 1 million votes, with over half of those votes coming from people under 35.
With the country’s struggling economy and rising unemployment in recent years, opportunities for young people have been limited, and girls’ rights in particular have been heavily affected. Youth activists, also part of the Girls Not Brides Zambia coalition used their votes in this election to say loud and clear that they want change.
Being a first-time voter, I wanted to exercise my rights […] as youth unemployment is a challenge.Chisha Chishimba, Youth Activist
Child marriage is another barrier that girls and young women in the country face, violating their rights, interrupting their education, and not least increasing the risk of gender-based violence. 29% of girls are reported to be married before the age of 18.
For those who are lucky to complete their secondary and tertiary education, employment prospects remain bleak. The COVID-19 pandemic brought about increased strain on households and businesses, and the growing percentage of government expenditure on debt payment has meant cuts in areas that affect young people. Many services that girls and young women rely on for support against practices like child marriage or are necessary for married girls to access (such as social services, education, health and sexual and reproductive health) were cut.
I wanted to make a contribution in making sure that we have policies that suit the interest of ordinary Zambians especially the youth whom I felt have not had a favourable environment with equal opportunities.Muyunda Kwaleyela, Youth Activist
In addition to scarce opportunities for employment and new business ventures, the voices of civil society – especially those of young people – were being silenced by controlling measures to curb news and social media through cyber-legislation and suspension of media houses.
In this troubling context, young people decided to stand up and speak out, and on the 12th of August they did just that by exercising their right to vote. The election turnout was record breaking for the number of registered voters in Zambia’s history. Over 50% of the electorate were under the age of 35, demonstrating young people’s hunger to make their voices heard. This was despite challenges throughout the voting process, including lack of registration booths (especially in remote areas) and a complete internet shut down on election day.
Enduring long queues and the scorching sun - a small price to pay just so we could have freedom.Deborah Rosalyn Ngabwe, Youth Activist
With every new elected President and government comes promises for a brighter future. The newly elected President, Hakainde Hichilema, recognised the role of young people in the election’s outcome and promised a better future where youth will be put first. He commented: “this was your election; the energy and passion that was exhibited”.
This landmark turnout was not only a win for young people in Zambia, but it also for the entire continent. It brings the hope that change is possible and proves that with determination, strategic mobilisation and a united voice, youth have the power to lead transformational change beyond the political sphere. For the movement to end child marriage in Zambia and across the continent, this is a hopeful message that speaks to the power young people have to create change in their own lives.
Young people [should] not shy away from such issues and think that they are only applicable to the older generation. One way or another, their decisions over these issues tend to have a ripple effect that comes straight back down to affect us and the generations to come.Deborah Rosalyn Ngabwe, Youth Activist
As global movements continue to address social injustices like child marriage, young Zambian people have been exemplary in showcasing the difference that comes with knowing your rights and using the tools available to you to achieve your goal. Today is our moment to speak about the tomorrow that we want to see.
Thank you to the Network to End Child Marriage in Zambia (NECMZ), particularly Chisha Chishimba, Muyunda Kwaleyela and Deborah Ngabwe for the invaluable contribution.
In the time it has taken to read this article 44 girls under the age of 18 have been married
Each year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18
That is 23 girls every minute
Nearly 1 every 2 seconds
Mundia Situmbeko is the Africa Engagement Officer at Girls Not Brides. Mundia focuses on strengthening our engagement in selected high prevalence countries in Africa, working with Girls Not Brides members (including young people) and National Partnerships to influence governments to implement their commitments.
Mundia Situmbeko est responsable de l'engagement pour l'Afrique chez Filles, Pas Epouses. Mundia se concentre sur le renforcement de notre engagement dans certains pays à forte prévalence en Afrique, en travaillant avec les membres de Filles, Pas Epouses (y compris les jeunes) et les partenariats nationaux pour influencer les gouvernements à mettre en œuvre leurs engagements.
Mundia Situmbeko es la Oficial de Compromiso de África en Girls Not Brides. Mundia se enfoca en fortalecer nuestro compromiso en países seleccionados de alta prevalencia en África, trabajando con miembros de Girls Not Brides (incluidos los jóvenes) y asociaciones nacionales para influir en los gobiernos para que implementen sus compromisos.