THE plague of Child marriages and teenage pregnancies continue to deprive young girls of their childhood, and the potential to become drivers of Zambia’s development.
Many girls, who aspire to become pilots, medical doctors, lawyers, nurses, and economists among other professions, fall prey to these social ills, and are forced out of education and into a life of poor prospects, with increased risk of violence, abuse, ill health or early death with the most affected being the rural cohort.
According to the UNICEF report on adolescents in Zambia, about 35 per cent of teenagers in rural areas begin child-bearing early compared with 20 per cent of those in urban areas.
Chienge District in Luapula province is one of the rural regions that have not been spared from a spate of teenage pregnancy and child marriage in Zambia, but area Member of Parliament (MP) Given Katuta, has vowed to put up a ruthless fight against the scourge.
Current statistics indicates continued limited access to sexual and reproductive health information and services among young people has contributed to low condom use with only 40 per cent of girls and 49 per cent of boys aged 15-24 years having used a condom at last high risk sex.
Teenage pregnancy stands at 29 per cent with about 16,000 of adolescent girls dropping out of school as a result of pregnancy.
“Being a new member of parliament of Chienge presents an opportunity for me to make a difference in the lives of people. My eyes are open to the reality of teenage pregnancy and child marriage and I think now is the time to safeguard the lives of a girl child in my constituency,” she says.
Early child bearing in rural areas often results from early marriage, and unplanned adolescent pregnancy is a major health concern owing to its association with higher morbidity and mortality for both the mother and child.
Ms Katuta, who is also a member of a Coalition of African Parliamentarian against HIV/AIDS (CAPAH) Zambia chapter, says besides providing information on sexual and reproductive health, easy access to contraceptives is a key factor in efforts to reducing teenage pregnancy in the country.
The parliamentarian says there is need to come up with a legal framework that will allow adolescents younger than the legal age of consent (16 years), to access contraceptives freely.
Ms Katuta says, “If we are to solve this problem of teenage pregnancy, and also to prevent the spreading of HIV, we need to allow our kids to start accessing contraceptives freely without constraints, and at Parliamentary level, we need to come up with laws that will allow children as young as nine years to access contraceptives when they become sexually active.”
“Nowadays, it is common practice for girls to start sexual engagement early and we (Lawmakers) can’t keep a blind eye to the high numbers of teenage girls dropping out of school because of pregnancy. We should act swiftly by putting in place mechanisms to increase access to contraception,” she adds.
Zambia has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world, with 42 per cent of women aged 20- 24 years married by the age of 18, while nine per cent are handed into matrimony by the age of 15.
Recently, a 15-year-old girl of Kanyama Township in Lusaka escaped from a forced incestuous marriage to a 60-year-old uncle in Lusaka.
This is just one of the few cases of child marriage that come to the attention of the public despite the minimum age of marriage in Zambia being 21 years for girls and boys under statutory law.
Child marriage is a violation of children’s human rights and is also prohibited by international law.
Nevertheless, inconsistencies in the legal system, both between different pieces of legislation, and between statutory law and unwritten customary law, which allows girls to be married at puberty, have been huge drawbacks in preventing early marriages.
The 2013-2014 Zambia Demographic and Health Survey indicates that girl’s most vulnerable to teenage pregnancy and child marriages have low levels of education and belong to households in the lowest wealth quintile.
Statistics further indicate that almost 30 per cent of girls aged 15-19 have experienced physical or sexual violence from a husband or partner.
Ms Katuta has since embarked on a sensitisation program to create awareness on the dangers of early marriages, and has also engaged traditional rulers, who are key stakeholders in tackling the vice which exacerbates teenage pregnancy.
“We need more talk about these issues, and I would like to invite people from the ministry of health and the ministry of community development, and ministry of gender to talk about teenage pregnancies on radio. Community radio stations are important tools to spreading messages against child marriages in Chienge,” she says.
She explains that the implementation of the national strategy on ending child marriage in Zambia which hinges on prioritising engagement with traditional leaders and law reforms will yield positive results.
It is a well known fact that child marriage in Zambia is driven by traditional practices and beliefs such as initiation ceremonies for girls who reach puberty to prepare them for marriage, and polygamy.
With about 60 per cent of the population living below the poverty line, parents see a girl child as wealth in form of the bride price they receive for marrying off their daughter.
The Chienge lawmaker is resolved to dedicate her term of office to addressing issues affecting a girl child, and is calling for stronger ties amongst stakeholders, who include the Government, cooperating partners and Non Governmental Organisations in championing the well-being of teenage girls.
Early pregnancy is one of the most dangerous causes and consequences of child marriage. Girls married early are more vulnerable to Gender Based Violence (GBV), and sexually transmitted infections (including HIV).
Zambians must act now!
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