Ending child marriage: Zambia passes landmark marriage law amendment
- Zambia sets the marriageable age at 18 without exception for all marriages
- Zambia aligns with Congo, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, and Zimbabwe
- 1 in 5 girls worldwide marries before they reach the age of 18
Child marriage is now illegal in Zambia, thanks to the new Marriage (Amendment) Act. The landmark amendment, passed in December 2023, defines a child as a “person who has attained, or is below, the age of eighteen years”. It also states that any marriage between persons where either is a child is now void.
“The legislation directly responds to the nation’s urgent challenges, with Zambia witnessing a staggering 1.7 million child brides, 400,000 of whom were married before age 15,” said Sally Ncube, the Regional Representative for Southern Africa at Equality Now, an NGO advocating for the protection and promotion of women’s rights.
Prior to the 2023 amendment, Zambia’s legal framework on child marriage presented a complex mix of customary and statutory laws. The Marriage Act of 1964 allowed for parental and judicial consent for marriages between the ages of 16 and 21, and customary marriages (marriages performed according to the tribal traditions) had no age restrictions, allowing children of all ages to marry under traditional law.
Although the practice had become less common in recent years, the UNFPA and UNICEF reported that in 2018, 29% of all young women aged 20–24 married before 18 years old, and 5% before turning 15.
“The removal of exceptions for customary marriages is a significant leap forward in achieving a society free from the harms of early marriages. As the nation celebrates this milestone, we anticipate positive changes that will resonate through generations,” said Womba Wanki, a chairperson at the Network on Ending Child Marriage in Zambia (NECMZ).
By passing this law, Zambia joins the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Seychelles, and Zimbabwe, that have laws that fully provide for the minimum age of 18 for both boys and girls, with no exceptions.
Child marriage around the world
According to UNICEF, at least 12 million girls are married every year before they reach the age of 18 – representing one in five girls worldwide. In a 2015 analysis of data conducted on 198 countries by the Pew Research Center, more than 100 countries around the world still allow children to marry – including the USA.
At current rates of progress, it will take 300 years to end child marriage, according to the international NGO Girls Not Brides.
The practice is particularly widespread in conflict-affected countries and humanitarian settings: 7 of the 10 countries with the highest prevalence are in West and Central Africa, where ongoing crises are putting more girls at risk.
South Asia has seen the greatest decline in child marriage, however nearly half (45%) of all girls and women married before age 18 live in South Asia, with a third in India alone.
The impact of child marriage
Child marriage is considered to be a form of forced marriage, given that one or both parties have not expressed full, free and informed consent. It affects mostly girls: globally, the prevalence of child marriage among boys is just one sixth of the number of underage girls.
According to UNICEF, girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence and less likely to remain in school. They have worse economic and health outcomes than their unmarried peers, which are eventually passed down to their own children, straining the country’s capacity to provide quality health and education services.
Child brides often become pregnant during adolescence, when the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth increases. The practice can also isolate girls from family and friends, taking a heavy toll on their mental health.