Ending child marriages in Zambia

Desmond Tutu and Mabel van Oranje visit the Population Council's Adolescent Girls Empowerment Programme in rural Zambia | Photo credit Francois D'Elbee Girls Not Brides

This article was originally published by the Zambia Daily Mail

Just a few weeks ago, the United Nations General Assembly held its first-ever debate on child marriage. It is remarkable that this harmful practice, affecting 15 million adolescent girls every year and hindering the prosperity of nations, is only just beginning to get the attention it deserves.

Zambia is playing a valuable leadership role, co-sponsoring the first UN Resolution on child marriage and launching a national campaign to end the practice. During our visit to Zambia this week we have met many who recognise that child marriage is damaging to the health, rights, education, and economic opportunities of millions. We hope that Zambia will continue to support change, not only at home but also in other fora including SADC, the African Union and at the UN.

The sad reality is that in many countries, adolescent girls, especially those born into poverty, are among the most vulnerable, oppressed and invisible members of society.

Even here in Zambia, where we have just spent several days, we have heard from girls whose opportunities have been cut short. As child brides they dropped out of school, became pregnant while still children themselves and suffered violence at the hands of their husbands.

When we asked them what they wanted for their children, they told us that they wanted them not to suffer the same fate. They wanted them to complete school so that they could have a better life.

The experience of girls in Zambia is consistent with that in many parts of the world. Girls living in poor rural areas are most likely to be married young. Economic hardship, a lack of affordable education, early pregnancies and the low value of girls in society drive this harmful practice. Moreover, inconsistency between statutory and customary laws further complicates the situation. The result is that in Zambia around 42 per cent of girls are either married or in a union by the age of 18.

Change will require a huge national effort. Like any process of social change, it will take time and requires the involvement of all – including traditional chiefs, NGOs, the health and education sectors, religious leaders, media and young people, especially girls themselves. We were encouraged to learn that the government acknowledges that child marriage is not an issue for one ministry alone – that it requires everyone, from the finance ministry to justice, gender, health, education, traditional affairs and others, to commit resources and political will.

When we decided to create Girls Not Brides: The Global Partnership to End Child Marriage, we knew that to be effective, we had to support change where it has the greatest possible impact – at the community level. We knew that we can talk all we like in conferences and parliaments, but if nothing changes for girls themselves, we will have failed. We also knew that we had to understand what informs the decisions that parents and girls make.

We have learned that to end child marriage we need to scale up programmes that empower girls, provide them with safe spaces to develop self-confidence, as well as support for their education and health care. We need to mobilise families and communities to support change – and we need effective laws and policies. It is only through such a comprehensive approach that girls’ lives will begin to change.

We would like to leave this remarkable country with two requests. The first is that everyone plays their part in ending child marriage – including all government ministries, chiefs, religious leaders, families, young people and NGOs. Zambia needs not only a campaign, but it needs a movement to end child marriage. This will benefit not only girls, but will also make the country more dynamic and more prosperous.

Our second request is just as important. It is to listen to girls. Give them a voice, understand their needs and support them to achieve their ambitions. It is simple: investing in girls pays off. No country can achieve its vision for the future without utilising the talents of all its people. Your daughters, the women of tomorrow, have much to offer. Don’t shut down their lives before they have a chance to live them. Give girls a future, not child marriage.