Traditional leaders and domestic laws must end early marriages

Date: January 1, 1970
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Prisca Mutale, a Chinsali resident in Zambia’s Northern Province sold her two daughters aged 10 and 12 for marriage to help her to feed the other six children in her care. She says it was her last resort, since the father of her other daughter abandoned her and the children.

These two children stopped going to school as hunger deprived them of the energy to walk the five miles to get there. They were doing grades 7 and 9 respectively. “It pains me to see them go but I have to do this since I have no option. I need money to keep my family,” she said. The children were sold for K900 000 each (about US$ 2250) to interested suitors.
Numerous international legal instruments prohibit forced and early marriage, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the United Nations Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.
However, the practice is still widespread. UNICEF estimates that in Africa 42 percent of women aged 15 to 24 were married before the age of 18. Although most countries have signed onto these documents, many countries have not taken sufficient steps to implement these treaties. For example, many signatory countries still lack domestic laws specifying 18 as the minimum age to marry
There is no doubt that many economic hardships exist, yet parents, guardians and others perpetuating early marriages ought to be reminded that this practice can lead to early graves, not only for the young mother but for her newborn child as well. The high rate of child mortality is often due to complications during labour.  The young mother’s body is not mature enough to endure the physical trauma of childbirth.
The World Health Organization estimates that the risk of death following pregnancy is twice as great for women between 15 and 19 years than for those between the ages of 20 and 24. The maternal mortality rate can be up to five times higher for girls aged between 10 and 14 than for women of about twenty years of age. When the babies do survive, their young child-parents can be overwhelmed with the responsibility of the parenting role.
Many parents in Sub-Saharan Africa believe that early marriage will shield their adolescent daughters from the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Shelley Clark, Assistant Professor in the Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, has done research that suggests the opposite may be true.
Clark, a demographer with interest gender and a reproductive health policy advisor in Africa, found that in Sub-Saharan Africa, where 30 to 40 percent of girls between 15 and 19 years old were married, the presumed safety of marriage was illusory. Research suggests that married adolescent girls face higher risks of HIV-infection than sexually active unmarried girls their own age. Marriage it seems does not offer protection against contracting a sexually transmitted disease.
Despite these dangers, early marriage continues to be the order of the day in Zambia, especially in rural areas where some parents play a leading role in establishing such unions.
Children as young as 12 years of age are married to men old enough to be their grandfathers. This distortion of the natural order of things leads to a situation where these unfortunate children leapfrog their own adolescent years, jumping directly into adulthood.
Traditional chiefs need to become involved in this issue because perpetrators of this dangerous practice claim to be fulfilling traditional beliefs, which they claim give explicit approval of early marriage. We need reassurance from traditional leaders that they understand this issue and that they will play a vital role in stopping the marriage of young girls.  As a first step, they can set up committees to function as whistleblowers to report the incidences of such marriages.
They can also establish forums from which they advocate against such a practice, showing that they do not bless such unions.  In fact, people who are found to participate in such practices as the purchasing of young brides, could be punished as culprits.
These early marriages are happening at an alarming frequency and are destructive of the nation’s moral fabric.  If nothing is done about it, this may become more mainstream than it already is and even more accepted, especially in rural areas.
African women in general marry at a much earlier age than their non-African counterparts do. Early motherhood has been the subject of a growing number of studies, research projects and intervention programs in Africa. Thanks to the increased awareness generated by studies on this issue, there is a large consensus among African decision-making bodies on the necessity of avoiding very early pregnancies.
Yet, too often, this information only reaches government officials and specialised groups.  This information certainly did not reach Prisca Mutale in time to prevent the sad plight of her two daughters.
Violet Mengo writes for the Daily Mail in Zambia and is a member of the Gender and Media Southern African (GEMSA) Network. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service that provides fresh views on everyday news.

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