MWENDA, Zambia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Sheltering from the midday heat in her yellow-painted bungalow, Chieftainess Mwenda speaks passionately about her mission to end child marriage in Zambia, starting first in her own chiefdom.
Reigning over 111 villages in Zambia’s far northern Luapula province, Mwenda said her attitude towards a long-standing custom of early marriage changed almost overnight, when, four years ago, she learned about the dangers of teen pregnancies.
“The doctors explained that there are numerous complications when a girl gets pregnant at a young age, so arising from that I got involved in the thought to push it further,” said the elderly chieftainess, clad in a bright pink and yellow dress, in an interview at the modest home she calls her palace.
“No one should allow a child in school (to marry),” she said, seated in an armchair and flanked by her two watchful advisers, one of them sitting on a sack of maize.
In this remote area, the word of the chief can have more impact than laws enacted some 800 km (500 miles) away in the capital Lusaka.
Although marriage below the age of 21 is officially illegal in Zambia, the southern African nation has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world.
More than 40 percent of girls in Zambia are married before they turn 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), a rate that has remained steady for more than a decade.
The practice has deep cultural roots, and girls most vulnerable are the poorest and least educated.