By Austin Kaluba -
A young woman Lucy Nkonde (not real name), walked out of her husband’s house, after enduring a two year loveless marriage in her natal village in Luwingu.
She ran to her sister in Kasama with a view of continuing her education from grade 9 where she had stopped after failing exams and dragged into a marriage against her will
However, she was in for a rude shock when her parents alerted all her relatives about her flight from marriage.
When she reached Kasama, family members organized transport for her to go back to her middle-aged husband who is a successful farmer in Luwingu.
News got to Kasama before she arrived. Alibutuka ku chupo- she has ran away from marriage-, a mobile phone message read a message read in ci-Bemba-alerting other family members to make plans to take her back to her husband.
The other family members could not understand why she left her rich husband who from time to time supported Lucy’s family members financially.
However, what they did not know was that the young girl felt she was too young to be married off not to talk of the shame of being part of a harem of three wives.
Though her elderly husband was more affectionate to her than his other wives, Lucy still felt trapped in a marital prison.
The story is familiar in Zambia which is a deeply-conservative society where family disputes tend to be solved privately. What made it even more strange was that Lucy was 16 years old when she was married off.
Fortunately someone whom, Lucy a plump, matronly-featured girl had befriended brought the sad story to the attention of authorities who speedily intervened.
Despite several efforts to address the scourge, child marriage is common but has rarely been exposed in public. Lucy is among several child brides to attract the attention of authorities.
Despite the Zambia law stipulating that the legal age for marriage is 18, in some rural areas in the country girls as young as 14 to 15 are still being married off.
The media are rife with stories of child marriages triggering indignation from gender NGOs, the church and the general public.
But despite a rising tide of outrage, the fight against the practice is not easy. Hard-line traditionalist conservatives, whose influence is dimishing still uphold some deeply-rooted local customs like child marriage.
Lucy who was finally rescued from her marriage and reconciled with her aunt recalled the ordeal, speaking in a soft, childlike voice as she sat in her new home in Lusaka.
She has been re-enrolled in schools and hopes to be a nurse, something that could have been a pipe dream if she had not left her husband.
As she told her story, tears welled up her eyes making her innocent face pitiful. She recounted the domestic chores she that were heaped on her not to talk about the harsh reality of discontinuing her education.
It all started when she failed her examination and realised that her parents never made any effort for her to repeat. She then started seeing a middle-aged man who started frequenting her home and calling her mwe bakashi bandi-My wife.
At first I thought he was joking and responded by calling him ‘uncle’. However, her ‘uncle’ objected to being addressed thus and jokingly insisted that she addresses him as husband.
One thing led to another with almost all family members getting involved in marrying her off to a rich man (by village standards)
The wedding came so quickly that no one bothered to tell her how women become pregnant, or what a wife’s role is, she added.
Now in marriage, Lucy who was a virgin till she married was unprepared for sex and was surprised when one night her 55 year old man took off her clothes as soon as the light were switched off.
She ran crying from the room to her aunt, who laughed at her naivete and took her back. Later, he husband always beat her whenever she refused to make love to him insisting in ci-Bemba tawafundwa-you are untutored maritallily.
What the old man felt to realize was that the tutoring Lucy desperately craved was academic, not marital education that is revered for young women in most villages.
“I hated him with a passion. Later, I hated all my relatives in the village because I think they had connived against me,” she said shrugging her shoulder at the memory.
Poverty is one reason so many Zambian families marry their children off early. But most important are cultural tradition and the belief that a young virginal bride can best be shaped into a dutiful wife.
Lucy complained repeatedly to her relatives who usually assured her that she would eventually get over it since they felt breaking a marriage would expose the family to shame.
Finally, On August 2 last year, she walked out of the house by herself using the money her husband had given her to buy a dress to board private transport.
It was the first time she had traveled anywhere alone, Lucy recalled, and she was frightened.
On arriving in Kasama, she narrated her story to her sister who involved the authorities. She said it was the first time a family member realised her predicament.
According to UNFPA, Zambia: Child marriage country profile, 2012 Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with 42per cent of women aged 20-24 years married by the age of 18 – a rate that has not evolved since 2002.
The rates of child marriage vary from one region to another, and are as high as 60 per cent in the country’s eastern region.
In Zambia, girls who are affected by poverty, lack of education and long standing traditional practices that discriminate against girls and women, are most vulnerable to child marriage.
For example, UNFPA found that 65per cent of women aged 20-24 with no education and 58 per cent with primary education were married or in union at age 18, compared to only 17 per cent of women with secondary education or higher.
While Zambia has established 21 as the minimum age of marriage for boys and girls, the effectiveness of the law is hindered by inconsistencies with other laws and policies on children, and by the existence of a customary legal system that exists in parallel and allows girls to be married as soon as they have reached puberty.
In 2013, the Government of Zambia launched a nation-wide campaign to end child marriage, spearheaded by the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, to draw attention to the harmful impact of child marriage and to encourage communities to delay marriage for their daughters.
The campaign has since been followed by a symposium on child marriage, which brought together key stakeholders – including various Ministries, traditional leaders, civil society organisations, youth, media and UN agencies – to explore ways to collaborate to end child marriage in Zambia.
The Government of Zambia is also taking steps to put child marriage at the forefront of the regional and international agenda.
Recently, Zambia co-sponsored with Canada the first UN General Assembly resolution on child, early and forced marriage.
The two countries co-sponsored another resolution on the issue at the UN General Assembly’s 69th session in 2014.
More than 140 million girls will become child brides by 2020 if current rates of early marriage continue, according to the UN.
Of that number of girls aged under 18, 50 million will be younger than 15, says the UN Population Fund, which co-hosted a panel on child marriage at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) recently.
Although rates of child marriage vary between and within countries, most take place in rural sub-Saharan Africa in countries like Zambia and those in south Asia.
But it is not all doom and gloom. Several efforts by institutions like the government, NGOs, churches, donor communities have been effected to arrest the scourge.
Panos recently organized two workshops at Protea and Cresta hotels in Lusaka to sensitise journalists, political leaders, traditional leaders and other stakeholders to expose this ill.
As authorities grapple with solutions to such problems, girls like Lucy are trapped in loveless marriage which some vestiges of traditional norms support.