Zambia: 'Early Marriage' Tradition Violates Girls' Rights
Monday, January 10, 2011 3:35 PM

Underage marriage is widespread in northern Zambia’s Luapula Province, where the UNFPA estimates that 70 percent of teenage girls are forced into marriage. Poverty, particularly in rural areas, and a tradition of marrying daughters off young, account for the high rates of child marriage. The practice of bride price - where the groom pays an amount of money to the bride’s family - also plays a role as some parents seek financial gains from marrying their daughters. Many parents also choose to marry their daughters young to prevent them from getting pregnant outside marriage and besmirching family honor.
Early marriage is one cause of Zambia’s high maternal mortality rate, which at 591 per 100,000 live births, is one of the highest in the world. In addition, it is responsible for increasing school drop-out levels among girls, which currently stands at 60 percent for girls thirteen or fourteen years old. Also, since girls are often married to older men, they run the risk of living in abusive relationships and being exposed to HIV/AIDS.
Some positive steps have been taken in Zambia to address early marriage. The government has strengthened campaigns to raise awareness of child marriage in the Luapula Province and, with the help of UNFPA, has trained health staff in family planning methods, emergency obstetrics, and neo-natal care. Efforts have also been made by traditional rulers. One traditional ruler in the Luapula Province dissolved fifteen child marriages last year and sent twelve girls back to school.
According to Zambian law, the minimum legal age for marriage is 18, but a person who is 16 or 17 years old can marry with parental consent. A person under the age of 16 is a minor, and sex with a minor is punishable with up to 25 years in prison. However, Zambian law does not have any definition for "early marriage". Early marriage violates children’s basic rights to a safe childhood, an education, good health, and being able to make decisions about their own lives, and perpetuates violence against women.