World Vision, the most alarming statistic about child marriage is that almost 700 million women in the world today were married as girls. A third of them before there 15th birthday. “Child marriage is a legal marriage or informal union where one or both parties are under the age of 18”. While child marriages are far more likely to happen to girls, it is not uncommon for boys to marry before the age of eighteen. Although early marriages are illegal in almost every country, enforcing them is very difficult. This is true in most developing countries and in countries where there is a mixture of British common law and traditional customary laws.
For example, in Zambia, under the marriage act of 1964, the minimum age for marriage is 21 years. However, under article 17 and 33, an individual aged 16-21 may marry provided they have parental consent. An individual under the age of 16 can be married with judicial consent assuming the circumstances of the case are not contrary to public interest. These provisions are rarely applied to customary law. Under statutory laws, child marriage is illegal and is considered child abuse. However, under traditional law, there is no age limit for consent and marriage can take place as soon as the girl hits puberty. It is common for girls in Zambia to be married or have sexual relationships under the age of sixteen (world vision, 2015).
Before independence from Britain, Zambia had two sets of distinct legal systems. One that applied specifically to Zambians, and another to both Zambians and British individuals. Currently the judicial system has a mixture of both customary and statutory laws. In general, customary or native laws do not give many rights to women and girls compared to statutory laws. For example, while some Zambians who live in urban cities are married in civil rights that are governed by the marriage act, which is non-discriminatory. In rural Zambia, people are still governed by customary laws. Problems arise when these two systems collide (UNESCO, 2013).
The marriage act states, the legal age for marriage is 21, and anyone under the age of twenty-one who is not a widow or widower needs written consent from the father (or mother or guardian if the father is dead or of unsound mind). If the father refuses to consent, the child can apply to the high court judge to provide consent. Also, sex or sexual relations and contact with anyone under the age of sixteen is prosecutable with life in prison.
However, under customary law, the age for marriage is based on maturity, but the term maturity is not explicitly defined, and there is no minimum age. In this case, maturity is subjective and is dependent on what the elders deem as mature” (Ndulo, 2011). In some tribes, a girl or a boy can be married as soon as they go through the right of passage which is when they start puberty. It could be thirteen, twelve or fourteen and sometimes as soon as the child begins her menstrual cycle. In rural areas, it is not unheard of for girls to have sexual relations before the age of sixteen or be married. To add-on to this point, prosecutions are even harder because some traditional practices do not see anything wrong with child marriage. In some rural areas of Africa, there are no courts, the chiefs or the elders of the land preside over disputes (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde, 2015).
Secondly, attitude towards girls, in many traditional cultures, parents favour boys, boys are supposed to go out work, hunt and bring home the meat and basically be breadwinners. While girls are supposed to stay at home in the kitchen and give birth. One study found that many parents have a view that educating girls is a waste of money, because, they will eventually be married off and their education will only benefit the husband and the husband’s family. There is also a societal expectation that girls will have husbands that will provide for them, so investing in girls is seen as a waste of money (UNESCO, 2013).
In the same study, one parent was quoted saying “It is better to educate a boy because after all, most girls are very foolish, they get themselves pregnant and drop out of school. Why should I waste my money?” In other studies, they also found that many communities in Africa favoured marrying off girls at a fairly young age. And in most cases, the girl ends up dropping out of school once they are married to start families. This is common especially in Muslim communities where there is a practice of betrothing girls at a very young age, sometimes at birth and then marrying them off in late adolescence (UNESCO, 2013).
Thirdly, poverty, there are cases where the parents see the girl as a way out of poverty, the perception is that through bride price/dowry, the parents have a steady flow of income. A recent study by UNICEF found that in every country where child marriage is prevalent, it is the poor and uneducated women that were most affected (UNICEF, 2014). Also, in countries where 50% of women are married as children, the marriages are prevalent in rural areas. In some cases, girls are married off as a way of paying a debt.
A recent study in Africa found that dowry or bride price is one of the reasons why domestic violence is high. Dowry is meant to act as a symbol of appreciation, a man pays to a woman’s family (Nour, 2009). The original traditional value for dowry has been lost and, in some cases, it is used as a way out of poverty. There are cases where even if a woman is being abused and run’s back to her parents, the parents will just take her back to the abusive husband. If they do not send her back, they risk losing his financial support (Lloyd & Mensch, 2008). In addition, there is the idea of honour. In many communities in Africa, it brings great pride to the family if the girl is married off while she is still a virgin. In some cases, girls are married off as young as 12, because they are beautiful, and the family is worried that they will start having sex early. (Radcliffe-Brown & Forde, 2015).
In conclusion, while statistics on child marriages are alarming, there are several ways they can be reduced. One main way is through the education and empowerment of women. As studies have shown countries that have extended rights to women are also the most prosperous.
World Vision Zambia. (2015). A Situation Report on Child Marriages in Zambia Retrieved from http://www.wvi.org/zambia/article/
Hari, P. (2013). Parents and community attitudes towards girls, participation in and access to education and science mathematics and technology Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/education/educprog/
Lloyd, C. B., & Mensch, B. S. (2008). Marriage and childbirth as factors in dropping out from school: an analysis of DHS data from sub-Saharan Africa. Population Studies, 62(1), 1-13.
Ndulo, M. (2011). African customary law, customs, and women’s rights. Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18(1), 87-120.
Nour, N. M. (2009). Child marriage: a silent health and human rights issue. Reviews in obstetrics and gynecology, 2(1), 51.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R., & Forde, D. (2015). African systems of kinship and marriage: Routledge.