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Zambia: how safe spaces for girls are preventing child marriage

Girls prepare to take part in #MyLifeAt15, the global campaign asking governments to fulfil their promise to end child marriage by 2030.

Meet Anna. At the age of fifteen, Anna wanted to become a famous singer. But now, Anna has more serious concerns on her mind. She is the last of seven girls. All of her sisters were married off at an early age and she worries that it might happen to her.

“My parents died when I was very young. We brought ourselves up. Most of my sisters got married young because of teenage pregnancy. They didn’t have parents to support them, keep the child, let them go back to school. Our other relatives thought the only solution was to marry them off.”

Child marriage in Zambia

Anna’s fear is all too common. Every year, 15 million girls are married before their 18th birthday.

In Anna’s own country, Zambia, many girls worry about marriage. Zambia has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world. UNICEF estimates that approximately 42% of girls are married by the age of 18.

Photo credit: The Graça Machel Trust

Photo credit: The Graça Machel Trust

Girls’ clubs for girls’ rights

Fortunately, there are local initiatives to address this problem. Anna attends a girls’ club run by Continuity-Zambia where she learns about issues facing girls, and how to stand up for her rights and say no to marriage.

Every week, for 2 hours, adolescent girls meet in this classroom at the Lusaka Girls’ Secondary School. The club, which has been running for less than year, seeks to turn this generation of girls into tomorrow’s leaders.

At the club, girls learn about issues that affect them, including child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, and how they can seek help. They learn leadership and life skills that boost their self-confidence, and find friendship and support from a group of girls their age.

“Thanks to the club, I’ve learned to speak out. As a girl, I also have a voice in my country, in my family. I can speak out when things are wrong,” says Mary. Her friend Lolanji agreed: “I’ve learned to be assertive, to set my own goals without anyone pushing me.”

Clubs’ impact on child marriage

While a few hours a month may not seem like much, they have a huge impact on girls’ lives. A growing body of research shows that safe spaces for girls are an effective way of empowering girls and delaying marriage.

The club also has a simple rule that boosts its impact: what you learn in the group shouldn’t stay in the group. When asked if they talked about what they had learned at the club outside, two of the girls said “We talk about it all the time!”

Capitalising on girls’ ability to share knowledge and mobilise others is what makes this approach so powerful. Girls spread the word far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

Zambia’s national strategy to end child marriage

Girls alone cannot bring an end to child marriage in Zambia. That is where the government comes in. In 2013, the Government of Zambia launched a country-wide campaign to end child marriage.

Spearheaded by the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs, the campaign focused on two angles: empowering traditional leaders to become champions of girls’ rights in their chiefdoms, and changing laws and policies to ensure that girls are legally protected from child marriage.

2015 saw further developments with the government developing a five-year action plan to address child marriage and co-hosting the African Girls’ Summit on Child Marriage. Finally, in March 2016, the government adopted a national strategy with the ambitious goal of ending child marriage by 2030.

Girls call for action on child marriage

These efforts are welcome and more African countries should follow Zambia’s lead. However, their impact has yet to trickle down. In fact, none of the girls knew about the campaign or the strategy. But they did have recommendations to make to their government.

  • First, educate the parents, especially in rural areas where many families are not literate
  • Educate teenagers about sexual health and distribute condoms to prevent teenage pregnancies
  • Organise recreational activities to keep girls busy and from being exposed
  • Involve schools in prevention

“Governments should put their heart in supporting the girls – the money, the funds, everything to support girls and give them a voice. Girls are important. And they can bring development to this country if they are supported.”

Now that Zambia has a national strategy to end child marriage, let’s hope Anna’s call to action will be heard.

A version of this story was published around the African Girls’ Summit in November 2015.