By Francis Maingaila
LUSAKA, Zambia (AA) - A disconnect between statutory law and tribal customs which has been blamed for the prevalence of forced marriages in Zambia is now being challenged by some tribal chiefs who are banning the practice.
Campaigners in Zambia have told Anadolu Agency that since the government introduced a Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs in 2013, tribal leaders have taken it upon themselves to ensure that children are protected from inhuman treatment, including early marriages.
The Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA) -- a regional NGO -- is concerned about the conflict between statutory and customary law but says the involvement of chiefs in the campaign against forced marriages will bring the practice to an end.
WLSA Director for Research and Programs Womba Mayondi tells Anadolu Agency that although official legislation makes it a penal offence to marry minors, customary laws do not restrict the age for marriage.
“Provided there is parental consent, a man can marry a girl as young as 12 or 13,” Mayondi says.
According to a 2015 UNICEF study on child marriage in Zambia, the legal split means that there is no consistent definition of the minimum age for marriage.
While the Marriage Act -- the statutory legal instrument which stipulates 21 years as the minimum age for matrimony -- there is a sharp contrast with customary laws which allow a child to marry with parental consent.
Currently, a child in Zambia is legally defined as any person below the age of 16.
The UN body says that although customary laws are often favored because of their guidance on inheritance, divorce and child custody issues, they also equate “physical maturity with adulthood and therefore marriageability”.
“Given that, customary [law] is ubiquitous, children are able to marry even before the statutory legal age,” the report states.
However, Mayondi says the involvement of chiefs in the fight against child marriage is slowly shifting the trend.
“After being sensitized to the dangers of child marriages, many chiefs have been tampering with the customary laws by way of bylaws [to] criminalize child marriages in their chiefdoms,” she explains, adding that local leaders have been dissolving marriages involving children and sending them back to school.
Chief Mwenda of the Tonga people in Zambia’s Southern Province is one such traditional leader who has fought to retrieve children caught up in early marriages.
Last month, during the visit of Forum for African Women Educationalists in Zambia (FAWEZ) officials to her palace, Mwenda announced that she had annulled over 600 marriages involving girls aged between 12 and 15 years since she joined the campaign in 2014.
According to Mwenda, her attitude towards a long-standing custom of early marriage changed when she learned about the dangers of teenage pregnancies.
Speaking at a news conference, the leader said: “The doctors have explained numerous complications when a girl gets pregnant at a young age. Arising from that, I got involved and am proud to reveal to you that, since I got involved, about 615 marriages have been dissolved and [I] have sent those girls back to school.”
As long as she lives, Chief Mwenda declared, no person living in her domain should allow a child to be married at school-going age.
Similarly, a doctor, Mannesse Phiri, tells Anadolu Agency that child marriages in Zambia are associated with high levels of poverty.
“When a parent has a girl child, all they see is ready cash to be fetched from a ‘bride price’, ranging from K6,000 ($570) to K10,000 ($980). This has been subjecting children to not only being parents at a tender age but also to many health complications, including maternal mortality.”
According to the 2008 Demographic Health Survey -- the most recent -- Zambia’s maternal mortality rate (MMR) of 591 per 100,000 live births is one of the highest in the world.
Dr. Phiri is hopeful that the renewed spirit in the fight against forced marriage will be sustained, as this will break the cycles of poverty and disease.
One of the parents whose child had her marriage dissolved, says she regretted having accepted the proposal.
The girl’s mother was approached to marry off her 15-year-old child to a wealthy man in the district -- something which would help solve the family's financial problems.
“Little did I know that by accepting to marry off our daughter, I sacrificed her future to the devil,” Joyce Malambo told Anadolu Agency.
Malambo regrets seeing her daughter in a marriage where she was repeatedly exposed to pregnancies and childbirth before she was physically and psychologically ready.
“I think it is a good idea to do away with child marriage. Girls who end up as brides at a tender age are coerced into having children while they are children themselves,” Malambo says.
One victim of child marriage, Betty Mulowa, tells Anadolu Agency she experienced a series of hardships, including beatings from her husband.
"He used to beat me up on a daily basis on account that my parents did not teach me properly, that I am very dirty and childish. But my parents would console me, saying ‘men are like that’ and [he] would eventually stop.”
“Now that I have been retrieved from marriage, I am looking forward to going back to school as promised,” she says.