Natasha is now 17 years old but married at age 15 and has had two children already. She has lost her childhood, education and any hope of future employment. This is the plight of about 42% of Zambian girls below 18-making Zambia among countries with the highest child marriage prevalence rates globally.
Child marriage is defined in Zambia as any marriage before the age of 18 and is a violation of human rights. It is often driven by poverty and supported by culture and traditions. It is most common in rural areas and locations where opportunities are limited. In such circumstances, parents are less likely to send girls to school and consider marriage as a way to secure their future. Girls who marry early often have limited knowledge of or access to family planning and as such they continue bearing children – thereby increasing their risk to maternal mortality, anemia an obstetric complications such as fistula compared to adult mothers because their bodies are often not yet fully developed to carry a pregnancy safely to term.
Their infants are often at higher risk for preterm birth, low birth weight, poor nutrition, and foetal death.In Zambia, adolescent fertility rate stands at 146 births per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19 – majority of whom are child brides. From an economic perspective, child marriage illustrates the sadness that attends to an estimated 714,000 girls in Zambia, and the price these young girls pay is missed opportunities for personal development. Girls who marry early usually have limited life-time opportunities to have an education and build a career for themselves. The current demographic and health survey of 2007 indicates that 44% of girls are likely to drop out of school by 12th grade – mainly due to pregnancy and consequently child marriage.
As the United Nations Population’s Fund’s. “State of World Population 2013: Motherhood in Childhood” report succinctly puts it, “When a girl becomes pregnant, her present and future change radically, and rarely for the better.” But many girls pay an even higher price. UNFPA’s latest research (2012) confirms that pregnancy and childbirth are now a leading cause of death for female’s ages 15 – 19 in developing countries, with some 70,000 adolescent girls dying each year from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. These statistics are tragic as so many of these deaths are preventable. More than 13 million of us share a fragile ecosystem that is expected to provide food, water, shelter and sanitation to a growing percentage of the population. And like in many nations with the fewest resources, Zambia’s population is growing at a fast rate of 2.8% as indicated in the 2010 census of population and housing.
Adolescent pregnancies (mostly among married adolescents) are contributing to that population growth and damaging the economic potential of many young girls. If Zambia’s 42% of child brides had finished school and got jobs instead of getting married and pregnant, it would have added substantial amounts to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In Kenya,, it was estimated that if Kenya’s 220,000+ adolescent mothers had got jobs instead of getting pregnant, it would have added US$3.4 billion to the Kenyan economy, an amount equal to the nation’s entire construction sector. Child marriage marriage may pose special challenges to the nations of the developing world,but it is a problem for developed nations as well. Challenges to the nations of the developing world, but it is a problem for developed nations as well.
The additional costs to U.S. taxpayers for the increased incarceration rate of children of adolescent mothers, is estimated to total nearly US$11 billion per year. In Zambia, child marriage diminishes the life opportunities of girls everywhere, but the cost goes beyond the burden borne by the girls themselves. And that is why it is our collective responsibility to address this problem. To address this issue, the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, with support from the United Nations and other Government Ministries, Cooperating Partners, and Civil Society, embarked on a national campaign to end child marriage in April 2013. First Lady Dr. Christine Kaseba officially launched the campaign, with a call to end the scourge which is robbing young girls of an opportunity to excel in life. Dr. Kaseba urged married girls to consider going back to school and acquire skills to empower themselves economically.
“Government will help you (young girls) decide what support you need – but you should know that education is priority as it will help you have a bright future” she said. As a priority for 2013, UNFPA Zambia has scaled up interventions to reach the most marginalized adolescents girls – including girls affected and at risk of child marriage. This follows the UNFPA Executive Directors commitment for UNFPA to invest up to an additional US$20 million to reach the most marginalized adolescent girls in 12 countries including Zambia.As the lead UN Agency supporting national programmes to end child marriage, UNFPA (with support from the UK Department for International Development and the Embassy of Sweden) is working with the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs and other Government and civil society partners to invest in programmes that will:
• Develop policies and legislation addressing child marriage.
• Support generation of data and information on child marriage.
• Support the implementation of community level programmes that will build girls’ protective assets to help them avoid child marriage.
As Zambia, we can start by thinking about child marriage in new ways, beginning with the understanding that society, not just the teenage girl, is the source of the problem. Working together as partners from all sectors, including the private sector and young people themselves, we can advance the economic development of Zambia by adopting more enlightened attitudes about gender roles and gender equality for our girls. And since we know that education is a strong prophylactic against child marriage, we must find ways to keep girls in school. We also need to drastically increase adolescents’ access to age-appropriate sexual and reproductive health information and to contraceptive products. And we need to provide better support for adolescent mothers.