Why traditional chiefs like me must stand against child marriage

This blog was originally posted on Chime For Change, in partnership with Girls Not Brides.

I am a traditional chief or “Nkosi” in my language. My chiefdom is called Mfumbeni, it lies in the eastern part of Zambia and is home to about 325 villages. Each village has around 200-250 households with an average of seven members per family. My chiefdom of Mfumbeni amounts to more than half a million individuals.

I am responsible for my people’s overall welfare. I look after the quality of their water– is it safe to drink? Do they have enough? What illnesses do they suffer? I speak on their behalf to the Government and make sure that they get the services they are entitled to such as healthcare.

Life is not easy, we really lack schools, HIV/AIDS is a problem and there are soaring levels of illiteracy. Poverty levels are high and most people depend on subsidized farming. Money can be very hard to come by.

Child marriage is a tradition that I am determined to end

Child marriage is a tradition here indeed, but I am determined to put an end to it. I simply don’t think it is God’s wish that girls should suffer. Just imagine the lifelong trauma you would suffer if you were married as a child. And I saw the negative impact that child marriage has not only on girls, but also on their own children, their families, and on all of us in the community.

The truth is that by striving for the welfare of our girls we are striving for everyone’s good. That is why I started to speak out against child marriage. Children are children; we must let them grow, we must look after them and send them to school.

The truth is that by striving for the welfare of our girls we are striving for everyone’s good.

Chief Nzamane

A few years ago, I started a civic education programme where I reached out to people of my community. Together with my association, Mfumbeni Development Association, we run classes to explain to parents that their daughter’s bodies are not ready to carry a baby or to give birth to a child.

You see, for lack of education most parents are not even aware of the reproductive process and don’t understand the dangers that girls face when they give birth at such a tender age.

Also, in my chiefdom, it was common for girls to be given in marriage in exchange for a dowry or ‘bride price’. This was usually given in the form of cattle because when you have many cows, you are viewed as a wealthy person. I tell parents that they must not look at marriage as a source of income. I explain to them that education is a better investment in the long-term and that it will bring the family more resources.

Most parents respond positively, but sometimes I have to be firm. As their traditional leader, I have the right to reprimand those who cause harm to others. When I meet girls who have run away to escape a wedding that they did not choose, I go and talk to the families. But if they don’t want to listen to me, I reprimand them by making them repair communal roads for example or other facilities that we share as a community.

Together we can achieve change across Zambia

I have already seen a lot of change and more and more families are choosing education over marriage for their daughters. I am confident we can achieve this across the country.

Zambia has about 72 tribes and each of the tribes has their different customs and traditions. That is why we need chiefs from all over our country to speak out against this practice. But we cannot do this alone. We need our government to strengthen laws to prevent child marriage. We need them to take a stand and say that early marriage is not what we want for the children of Zambia.

I am a father of three children. My daughter is now grown up and she works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Zambia. I am very proud of her. But I want this for all the girls in my chiefdom. I want to see them go to school, choose a future in which they can be self-reliant and marry when they choose.