Celebrating role models and champions for ending child marriage in Zambia

Our Rain Barrel team – Teresa Stuart, Andrew Carlson and Chola Lungu – working with the Government of Zambia through its Ministry of Gender, recently concluded a contract with UNICEF to develop a comprehensive advocacy and communication strategy and a monitoring and evaluation framework.  This time it was on “Ending child marriage in Zambia”.

The Rain Barrel Team in Zambia

Working with different levels of stakeholders, we developed a costed behavior and social change communication plan to go with the country’s 2015 National Strategy on Ending Child Marriage that aims to reduce child marriage by 40 percent by 2021. The ultimate goal is to eliminate the practice by 2030 in keeping with Sustainable Development Goal 5.

The RBC Team with community mobilizers during a consultation with parents, youth and elders (Lusaka, Sept 2017)

Zambia has one of the highest rates of child marriage worldwide with 31% of women aged 20-24 having been married before the age of 18.  The harm caused by child marriage has many faces: it violates the human rights of girls and boys, it impedes their access to education, jeopardizes their health, robs them of their childhood, increases the risk of violence, and limits their life opportunities. Child marriage further perpetuates the cycle of poverty, which is its main driver.

At the UN General Assembly in New York, President Edgar Lungu led African leaders in firming up commitments to end child marriage

No less than Zambia’s President Edgar Lungu recognizes that child marriage is one of the causes of ongoing development challenges in the country. The African Union has even designated him to champion efforts in combatting the practice on the continent. Beginning in 2015, he has lead other heads of state toward the 2016 adoption of UN Resolution 71-175 that recognizes child, early and forced marriage as “a harmful practice that violates, abuses or impairs human rights that has a negative impact on women and girls… and that States are obligated to prevent and eliminate the practice”. For her part, First Lady Esther Lungu has been staunchly advocating against child marriage, rallying other first ladies to this cause.

In creating an advocacy and communication strategy, we rode on this positive political and social environment in the country and abroad.  Foremost in our minds was to make sure that stakeholders would feel a sense of ownership with the strategy we were to develop.  We did this by inviting wide participation each step of the way, and by manifesting our respect for Zambian traditions and culture.

We had lively focus group discussions with mothers and grandmothers on child marriage and related issues (Lusaka, Sept 2017)

This meant recognizing that social norms like child marriage and traditional practices like initiation rites of passage evolved over long timespans and cannot be changed overnight – and certainly not by stigmatization or coercion. Community elders also reminded us that, historically, child marriage has been a coping mechanism in the face of low life expectancy, compounded by early deaths due to AIDS, other infectious diseases, and high infant and maternal mortality.

We met with three generations of women on initiation rites, girls’ school completion and child marriage (Senanga District, Sept 2017)

Upon reaching puberty, girls undergo initiation ceremonies, a practice that is widespread all over Zambia. In rural areas, the traditional ceremonies take different forms and last for weeks, preventing the girl from attending school.  The girls are taught about hygiene during menstruation, sex, homemaking and more, and a girl who has completed initiation is considered ready for marriage. Marriage bestows prestige on a girl, earning her respect in the community. Once a girl or boy is married, regardless of their age, she or he reaches the age of majority and is regarded as an adult.

Colorful flags hanging around a homestead indicate that an initiation ceremony is taking place

Rain Barrel’s team designed the strategy based on insights from our field visits and consultations as well as from a review of past initiatives and research. Our field visits and consultations in September and November 2017, and in January 2018, brought us to three districts: Lusaka, Senanga and Katete.

Rain Barrel team meeting with village elders on their views about child marriage and related issues (Senanga District, Sept 2017)

We interacted with young people, mothers and fathers, district officials, traditional leaders – the Chieftains and Indunas – religious leaders, teachers, guidance counselors, health workers, national and community media, local drama groups, civil society organizations and more.

Rain Barrel team meeting with traditional leaders and elders on their views about child marriage and related issues (Katete District, October 2017)

One line of inquiry we pursued was to understand the “influencers” – admired community members and leaders – who might positively influence the process of change.  We asked young people to name their role models and discuss their aspirations for the future. We noted a dearth of role models among girls in the rural areas.   They needed coaching in identifying potential careers and women they could look up to and emulate. For example, some girls from Namalangu Secondary Day School in Senanga said that aside from becoming wives and mothers, they hoped to become nurses, police officers and teachers, or go into business. The group of under-18 youth in suburban Lusaka described a much wider range of options for potential careers.  They also cited more role models among their own parents, aunts and uncles, teachers and communities.

Students from Namalangu Secondary School (Senanga District, Sept 2017)

The first of its kind in the African region, Zambia’s advocacy and communication strategy calls for changing social and cultural norms and long-held traditions through inspiring and innovative approaches.  It relies heavily on positive role models to tell the stories around child marriage, education, and adolescent health, protection from violence and abuse, and opportunities for a better future.  At the strategy’s core is participation of young people for the inspiration for communication content and campaigns. It outlines a wide range of culturally-appropriate, acceptable and cost-effective activities that will motivate, mobilize and engage new and existing structures.

Schoolgirls from a primary school in Senanga District need inspiring role models (Sept 2017)

The media – mass, social and community media – are being engaged to play a major role: amplifying the voices and stories of children, to promote their participation as role models in local and national decision-making and support their quest for viable educational and livelihood opportunities. As the strategy is rolled out over the next few years, we hope to see children and young people enjoying wider access to safe and inclusive use of traditional and new communication technologies and media platforms, interacting with inspiring role models and champions who instil hope for a bright future.  The strategy foresees these mediated interactions being matched by a growing array of options and services in education and vocational training, income-generating activities, adolescent-friendly reproductive health, social protection, civil registration and recreation, among others.

The 2018 – 2019 implementation of the strategy in the two pilot districts of Senanga and Katete includes community dialogues with parents, youth, and leaders, and the establishment peer groups to support young people in making different decisions about their futures. These activities will be rolled out to an additional 18 districts across the country starting in 2020 and will apply lessons learned from the pilot districts. By 2021 and beyond, the result of the ongoing programme, advocacy and communication activities, is expected to lead to more girls and boys and their families deciding to delay marriage, avoid teen pregnancies, complete secondary school and seek a brighter future. Improved national policies and local by-laws will work hand in hand with on-the-ground activities to create a vibrant enabling environment that affords young people better alternatives to child marriage.

Posted in Rain Barrel.

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