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Community-driven actions to end child marriage: the critical role of traditional leaders

Katete District, Eastern Province - Katete District in Zambia’s Eastern Province is among 5 Districts with the highest child marriage prevalence rates in Zambia, currently standing at 39% [ZDHS sub-analysis). The practice has significantly affected key health and development outcomes among adolescent girls, depriving them of fundamental rights to health, education and the fulfillment of future aspirations. For many child brides, many of whom become mothers while they are still practically children themselves, repeated pregnancies and childbirth before they are physically and psychologically ready to become mothers poses life-threatening risks, including risk for maternal death and obstetric complications such as Fistula; HIV and AIDS; domestic violence; as well as costs for delayed or lost life potentials.

However, there is hope in the horizon to address negative social norms that perpetuate child marriage in the District, with demonstrated commitment by traditional leaders such as Her Royal Highness, Chieftainess Kawaza of the Chewa people. With over 650 villages and an estimated population of 100,000 [of which 75% are young people], Kawaza chiefdom is one of the largest Chiefdoms in Eastern Province.

As a female traditional leader, my aim is to be a role model within my chiefdom, including ensuring that we collectively challenge social and traditional norms and practices that negatively affect our women and girls - Chieftainess Kawaza of the Chewa people 

Chieftainess Kawaza recognizes that protecting and fulfilling the rights of women and girls in her Chiefdom is central to actualizing inclusive and sustainable development. Notably, she has demonstrated this commitment by developing a robust Chiefdom Development Strategic Plan (2018-2021), which places significant priority on eliminating non-progressive social and cultural norms and practices, including a strong agenda to end child marriage.

With support from the UNFPA-UNICEF Global Programme to Accelerate Action to End Child Marriage, Her Royal Highness has established local taskforces and committees mandated to implement interventions to address social and cultural drivers of child marriage in the Chiefdom. Equally, she continues to play a significant role towards encouraging adolescent mothers in her Chiefdom to go back to school.

“As a female traditional leader, my aim is to be a role model for all the people in my chiefdom. I want to ensure that we collectively challenge social and traditional norms and practices that negatively affect our women and girls, without leaving the boy child behind. We do this by enforcing punitive measures against parents who marry off their children [mostly paying penalties in the form of livestock], alongside undertaking community dialogues to make them understand why child marriage has negative consequences on overall health and wellbeing of families. I have also issued a directive for all traditional ceremonies to take place only during school holidays, noting that many girls are forced to drop out of school in order to undergo initiation rites [often done to mark the onset of puberty]; as well as instructed the traditional counsellors who conduct the initiation rites to revise the curriculum to focus only on progressive topics and cultural practices that promote respect for human rights" - highlights Her Royal Highness.

Chieftainess Kawaza remains resolved to accelerate inclusive development in her Chiefdom through sustainable solutions that address negative traditional and social norms. “I really thank UNFPA and UNICEF, as well as other partners who continue to support community-driven solutions to child marriage” - she highlights.