For decades, early child marriages have stuck out like a sore thumb in many African societies.
In the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, countries have had to face the sad reality of "curing" this scourge which has shredded the societal fabric.
In Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, issues ranging from gender inequality, poverty and insecurity have "pushed" girls on the marriage bed way too early.
A serious violation of girls' human rights, early child marriages also strip them of their rights that include health care, education, the right to choose when and whom they marry, just to name a few.
SADC countries respond
In Zambia, traditional leadership has been playing a major role in reducing and hopefully ending child marriages.
Chieftainess Kawaza (Vainess Phiri) of Katete District, Eastern Province, has "traded" her royal robes to become a foot soldier working tirelessly to end child marriages and cattle herding.
At the sidelines of the just-ended International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) Summit in Nairobi, Kenya, she told The Herald that Katete had some highest cases of child marriages in Zambia.
But, she adds, they have not been sitting and watching.
"The conversation with society started when I attended a workshop in Kitwe, Copperbelt," said Chieftainess Kawaza. "At the workshop, I discovered that an assessment report mapped in my area showed a high prevalence of early child marriages."
As a starting point, Chieftainess Kawaza upon returning home armed with new knowledge on the topic, took the lead and immediately set up committees in each village under her watch.
"We called our partners like UNFPA to sensitise and further train us," she said. "We wanted society to understand the dangers of marrying off a girl before the age of 18. Most importantly, if traditional leaders speak to the people, they understand."
Her role also came at a time the Zambian government was requesting traditional leaders to be the major stakeholders in fighting early child marriages.
"Government believed that if they did this with NGO partners only, the goal of ending child marriages will not be achieved," she said. "Bringing in the traditional leaders who are the custodians of culture was important.
"At community gatherings, I also share my personal story explaining why I have the passion to see a girl child go back to school. I went back to school and completed my education after I already had children.
"I also explain the dangers of early marriages, and ask the girls how they feel when they do so early."
The community responded positively and is now valuing the rights of the girl.
Results are starting to show.
So far, said Chieftainess Kawaza, 67 girls have been withdrawn from marriages and gone back to school, something that could not be achieved a few years back.
"I am contributing school fees and stationery towards the education of girls," she said. "We ensure schools and parents are connected. We cannot know a girl has been married off. We engage teachers who alert us when a girl stops coming to school. We immediately make a follow-up."
Chieftainess Kawaza has been advocating for lower school fees to ensure girls from underprivileged families do not drop out of school and forced to marry.
"For example, last year, I advocated for the government to reduce school fees," she said. "The Zambian government listened to us and this resulted in many other girls who had dropped out of school and going into early marriages continuing with their education."
Chieftainess Kawaza encouraged traditional chiefs in the SADC region, especially those who have not started, to use Zambia as a case study towards ending child marriages.
"Whatever I am doing in Kawaza, royal highnesses in Katumba, Mbamumbe are doing the same," she said. "The plans are similar. We will not allow a girl below 18 years to be initiated, even a schoolgirl. As royal highnesses, we will only allow those 18 years and above and ready for marriage to be initiated."
If a villager is found on the wrong side of the law, the subject is invited to the palace and punished.
The traditional punishment involves working, paying a fine or even staying at the chief's palace for some time.
"Our subjects fear being invited to the palace for wrongdoing," she said. "We do not want to punish them, but want them to implement policies that end child marriages and also work with us.
"Because if they do not come on board, I can talk and talk, if they have not accepted, it becomes a challenge."
UNFPA Country Representative for Zambia Ms Gift Malunga said the country has rolled out a campaign to end early child marriages, further developing a five-year national strategy from 2016 to 2021.
"Coincidentally, Zambian President Edgar Lungu is the African Union champion for ending child marriages," said Chieftainess Kawaza. "The political will is already there.
"Because of his position and commitment together with his own government to end child marriages, the ministry of gender was tasked to come up with a national implementation plan.
"In 2017, a costed national implementation plan was put in place. The issue was to look at the key drivers of child marriages and one of the most pressing issues was poverty. When you have high poverty levels, unfortunately, the girl child is seen by some parents as a commodity. They believe if you marry off the girl child then they have some resources."
While child marriage is a national development issue, there are regional variances were high prevalence rates are in rural areas, like the Eastern and Western provinces of Zambia.
The national average is 31 percent, while it sits on 40 percent in some provinces.
In urban areas, it could be as low as 19 percent, according to Ms Malunga.
She said some cultural issues that require a girl to be married off when she reaches menarche, the first occurrence of menstruation, contributed to early child marriages.
Because of limited education, some parents do not see the value of educating a girl child.
"When a girl is married off early, it means dropping out of school and early child marriages, pregnancies and the cycle of poverty continues," said Ms Malunga
In Zambia, Ms Malunga added, they do not work alone, the problem requires a multi-sectoral and multi-partner response to address.
"We are working with other organisations within the national framework of the national strategy and the implementation plan that is already in place. From our end we are looking at issues of legislation and the policies that are not speaking to each other," she said.
"The available legislation and the customary laws do not speak to each other in terms of age of consent for marriage. We are looking at reviewing such policies supporting government to do that working together with parliamentarians."
While the process is ongoing, they hope it will be tabled in the current session of Parliament.
"We are also looking at issues of keeping girls in school. We noticed from evidence that if girls remain in school, they delay childbirth and marriage," sid Ms Malunga. "When educated, they can look after themselves, families and, most importantly contribute to economic development."
According to Ms Malunga, Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) will not be achieved if the young girls are left behind.
"Zambia has a very progressive medium- term plan, The Seventh National Development Plan, which is supporting Vision 2030," she said. "Zambia expects that by 2030 it will be a prosperous middle income country. That cannot be achieved if girls are left behind."
Ms Malunga emphasised that education is not just academic, but also entails young people having the knowledge to access sexual and reproductive health information and services (SRHR).
"When they have accurate information about SRHR they know where to access services, can prevent HIV, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancies," she said.
"SRHR becomes a key component. Working together with agencies like UNICEF and UNESCO we are supporting age appropriate comprehensive sexuality education in schools, so that young people know about growing up, relationships and protecting themselves."
Some sections of society have resisted this kind of education.
"We cannot blame them because they do not have correct information on what exactly young people are being taught," said Ms Malunga.
"For Zambia, the Ministry of Education already has incorporated age appropriate comprehensive sexuality education in the curriculum as the government realised it is important for young people to get correct information as they are growing up."
Ms Malunga believes SADC can do a lot as the region is just demarcated by boundaries.
"We are one people," she said. "That is why SADC and the AU needs to come together and speak with one voice about the issues of placing importance on the girl child. How do we empower the girl child? The AU is already ahead in terms of the Agenda 2063 and the demographic dividend.
"The missing link is the focus on empowering young girls. This is our entry point; it has multiplier effects for generations. SADC and AU should come together; the strategies are there. They need implementation and enforcement of policies they have put in place so young girls and women are empowered to take control of their lives, to be economically empowered."
In Malawi, child marriages stand at 46 percent, meaning one in two girls is married off and becomes a mother before the age of 18.
"It means almost half of Malawi girls marry off before the age of 18," expounded UNFPA Country Representative for Malawi, Young Hong. "This has been a major reason for school dropouts.
"They are completely excluded from any opportunity because usually they are born in poor families. Because they become mothers so young, they tend to produce babies before they physically become adults. They have four to five children per woman.
"Their children continue to live exactly the same pattern on life."
Presently, teenage pregnancies through early marriage or without marriage become the major driver of population growth in Malawi.
In Malawi, she said, 84 percent of the population lives in rural areas. This means cases of child marriages are concentrated in rural areas.
Poverty, unmet need for family planning also the cultural and socio issues surrounding them such as initiation rites in rural areas, access to relatively traditional ways of teaching sex and some sections of the initiation rites are promoting early sexual debut.
"Government is trying to slow sexual debut and promoting them to stay in school," said Hong. "There is a contrast in society. While they are shy about promoting family planning in rural areas, they are also teaching them about sexual life at a very young age.
"Some are 10 and 11 when they join the initiation rites."
In Malawi, according to Hong, the majority of women are 35 when they start family planning.
This means adolescent girls who are the major drivers of population growth are lagging behind. At the same time, the Malawi government made the commitment to reduce the unmet need for family planning to below 11 percent.
"We have been supporting the Malawi government to outlaw child marriages of girls below 18 years," she said. "Even with the parents' consent child marriage has become illegal since last year."
In the SADC country, safe spaces for girls have been created in rural areas where they regularly meet and get information on SRHR and services through mobile clinics provided to the government by UNFPA.
Countries in the SADC region, she suggests, should emphasise on modernisation of lifestyle.
"Culture should not be stagnated; culture is moving every day," said Hong. "Governments and citizens should work together, modernise the culture without losing the value and essence."
She further explained: "SADC regional leaders need to have concerted efforts to be able to end child marriage. One country change of law and culture may not have an impact on the region. Inter-governmental coordination and enforcement of the law with adequate national resources is important."
Hong suggested looking into available data.
"However, many countries lack data on young people and adolescents," she said. "How can the region cooperate on capturing the data and making regional decisions together that really make an impact on the young people?"
In terms of early child marriage, Mozambique is ranked in the top 10 countries in the world.
In this SADC country, one in two girls is married before 18. Reasons range from cultural issues related to fertility, to honour and economic reasons like receiving dowry for marrying girls off.
UNFPA Representative for Mozambique Andrea Marie Wojnar describes how poverty is a contributing factor to child marriages as families cannot support girls. As a result, many end up marrying them off to reduce the number of mouths to feed.
"One in two girls is married off before 18 years and the majority become pregnant within one year of marriage. They are very young and we have an extremely high rate of obstetric fistula in Mozambique with 4 000 new cases every year. It is a huge problem," she revealed.
In response, Wojnar added, they were working with the Mozambican government to end child marriage and there have been notable successes.
In August 2019, Mozambique passed a new Bill banning child marriage following a two and a half-year campaign by gender equality organisations.
She said the Bill, which set the minimum age for marriage at 18, eliminates a loophole in Mozambican family law which made it possible for children to marry at 16 with the consent of their parents.
"We are also working on numerous programmes to empower girls with information, leadership skills and also access to sexual reproductive and rights services," she explained.
In Mozambique, a mentorship programme targets the two most populous provinces --Zambezia and Nampula.
Raparinga Biz, a UNFPA-supported programme, has mobilised tens of thousands of adolescent girls to learn about their sexual and reproductive health and human rights, as well as about citizenship and life skills.
Loosely translated to "Busy Girl," Raparinga Biz was launched in May 2016.
"It directly takes on one of the root causes of child marriage and teen pregnancy -- gender inequality," she said. "Girls discuss the importance of equality, empowerment and human rights.
"We are targeting one million girls over four years. So far we have reached about 450 000 girls. Of the 450 000 girls less than five percent are marrying or having babies early."
In December 2018, Mozambique revoked a discriminatory 2003 decree that forced pregnant girls to take classes at night school.
"It was a counter-productive policy," said Wojnar. "Once the government understood that, they took up the courage and retracted the law. Pregnant girls can now re integrate into the classroom which we think is a big success. It took a lot of lobbying and advocacy.
"We need to continue the sensitisation at grassroots level to make parents understand that this is in the best interest of the girl and community if she finishes her education."
Wonjar explained that from the girls who are accompanied to a clinic or to a centre for SRHS many now choose to go on birth control and almost all choose to get tested for HIV.
In that process, she added, they also learn of their status and become empowered, protect themselves or they can prevent themselves from giving it to someone else.
They can ensure they are on proper nutrition if found to be HIV positive so they can maintain their health, Wonjar further explained.
"Mozambique has fantastic policies and programmes," said Wojnar. "They committed in 2012 at the London Summit on Family Planning to create and implement sexual and reproductive health programmes in schools.
"This includes information and services in every secondary school in the country by 2020. The Mozambican government is about halfway there and this is a big success should take note of this policy and have the courage to address the issue," she said.
Raparinga Biz is another potential opportunity for other SADC countries, she pointed out.
"It is inexpensive, about $4 per girl," said Wojnar. "Other countries can learn from that. They can also learn from the laws which allow pregnant girls to attend school."
She further encouraged SADC countries to educate entire communities on ways to eliminate child marriages.
"That is where we see the difference. It is not about passing national laws, even working at provincial, district levels," she said. "It is about working in communities, changing the hearts and minds of people."
In Zimbabwe, 32 percent of girls marry before they reach 18 and 4 percent are married before their 15th birthday.
Two provinces --Mashonaland Central and Mashonaland West -- have the lowest median ages of marriage.
However, the country has made efforts to end the scourge.
UNFPA Zimbabwe Country Representative Dr Esther Muia said one of the notable steps made by the country in the area of child marriage are favourable Bills like the Marriage Bill now in Parliament awaiting to be moved forward.
"Consent for marriage, what is the legal age for marriage? It used to be 16 now the Bill has recommended 18 and it's on its way to be accepted," she said.
"In the past there were Bills like when girls got pregnant they didn't get back to school. The return to school policy has now allowed girls, after they have had babies, to go back to school.
"When they have a baby and do not get back to school the likelihood that they will continue is still there. But now if they go back to school and they are counselled and there's guidance, it will reduce the number of girls becoming vulnerable to either getting infected or early unintended pregnancy, dropping out of school and the vicious poverty cycle."
Besides the work of developmental partners in ending child marriages, countries in the SADC region are also doing quite some work .
The establishment of "A Guide to Using the SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage and Protecting Children Already in Marriage for Parliamentarians, Civil Society Organisations and Youth Advocates" is one example.
According to the guide, the SADC Model Law on Eradicating Child Marriage, and Protecting Children Already in Marriage* adopted by the Plenary Assembly of the Southern African Development Community Parliamentary Forum (SADC-PF) on June 3, 2016, constitutes a milestone in the efforts to end child marriage in Southern Africa.
The guide further explains that the Model Law provides guidance to parliamentarians, Ministries of Justice, policymakers and other stakeholders in SADC member states as they develop effective national laws to end child marriage and address inconsistencies in their current legal frameworks.
As explained by the guide, the SADC Model Law on Child Marriage is designed among other interventions to:
Encourage the adoption of progressive marriage laws and the reform of outdated laws;
Provide specific guidance to national legislators in Southern Africa on the content and provisions of effective child marriage laws that are binding at the national level;
Promote regional and country level harmonisation of child marriage-related laws across and within member states -- laws on sexual offences; laws relating to gender equity and equality; penal laws; marriage laws; or divorce laws;
Provide clear definitions of terms -- such as "child" and "child marriage"'-- to avoid ambiguity and enhance consistency (e.g. It sets the legal minimum age of marriage at 18 for both sexes, without the exceptions commonly seen in existing national laws);
Reaffirm a human rights approach focused on the rights of women and children -- to tackling the issue of child marriage in Southern Africa;
Serve as a standard for national legislators and policy makers and promote accountability;
Help put the issue of child marriage on the agenda and serve as a stimulus for debate as well as an entry point for advocacy; and
Encourage data collection and in-depth research to guide design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of programmes to ensure that they address the needs of the most vulnerable and at-risk groups of girls.
With such efforts to end child marriage in the SADC region, vulnerable girls will hopefully complete their education and enjoy other human rights.
At the same time, those who have been married off can have a second chance in life and escape the jaws of early child marriages.