Elediya Tembo was only 15 when she was married off and she isn’t alone. According to World Vision, one in every three girls in Zambia marry before their 18th birthday, and Elediya’s province in the east has the highest rates of child marriage in the country.  

This means many girls like Elediya have children when they are still children themselves. World Vision says many of these young mothers die in childbirth, many babies die before they are five and many families are trapped in an ongoing cycle of poverty. 

Experts say Elediya and millions of girls like her “stand at this crossroad, with their futures on a knife edge”.

It’s not getting any better for girls in Eastern Province. Recently, Chipangali District Health office gave a startling figure of more than 790 teen pregnancies recorded in the two months of April and May this year.

District Education Board secretary Felistus Nkoloma, said 37 of the 793 were school girls while the rest were not in school.

Chipata district recorded 100 teenage pregnancies in the first quarter of this year.

According to Chipata District Education Board secretary Gabriel Chutu, the district recorded 25 early marriages, of which five involved young boys.

Chadiza District alone recorded 468 cases of teen pregnancies in 2015, 336 in 2017 and 1,601 in 2018.

According to Plan International, these cases were recorded from out of school girls in communities but were compiled by the Ministry of Health.

Nearly 30% of adolescent girls in Zambia become pregnant by the age of 18 according to the Zambia Demographic Health Survey (ZDHS 2018).

Experts say, the high rate of teenage pregnancy remains a significant concern and poses major development challenges. When adolescent girls fall pregnant, they drop out of school, this reduces the opportunities to actualise their full potential and entangles them in a perpetual cycle of poverty and inequality, according to experts.

Public records show that rural areas have a high prevalence rate of teen pregnancies compared to urban areas.

Teen pregnancies, which in some cases result in early marriages, are still prevalent in Eastern Province and Zambia in general.

The good news is that several organisations have muted interventions to reduce teen pregnancies and early marriages.

In December 2018, Plan International and government launched chiefdom by-laws meant to end early child marriages and teen pregnancies.

Speaking during the launch of the by-laws in Chadiza district, then Gender Minister Elizabeth Phiri said the by-laws would help traditional leaders deal with matters relating to early marriages and teen pregnancies in their areas.

“In most villages there are no police officers, so whenever there is a case, people report to traditional leaders, so they will be able to refer to the by-laws whenever they are handling matters of child marriages and teenage pregnancies,” she said.                                                                                                                                                   Former Plan Zambia Eastern region programme manager, Richard Kalyata said from the time Plan started working in Chadiza in 1999, the district has recorded high prevalence of child marriages and teenage pregnancies and other child protection issues.

“Because of the above challenges, we thought that as much as we have trained the communities, we have conducted sensitisation meetings, but there is no change, so we thought probably going the by-law way, will help us to curtail some of the practices that are prevailing,” Mr Kalyata said.

Similarly, through its Break Free project, Plan International has embarked on an ambitious programme to fight early marriages and pregnancies.

Break Free Acting Project Manager, Sabelo Maposa, explained that the project is run by a consortium of three organisations - Plan International, SRHR Africa Trust (SAT) and the Forum for African Women Educationalists of Zambia (FAWEZA).

Break Free is a five-year project funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands through Plan International Netherlands.

 “As Break Free (under Plan) here in Eastern Province, we’re working in three districts - Vubwi, Chadiza and Petauke, while SAT will also be in other districts,” he said.

The project target is to reach 5,000 girls and 4,500 boys aged between 10 and 24 years.

“So, we’re also working with nine youth-led organisations, two civil society organisations and six action community groups.

Bernadette Phiri, 19, an early marriage survivor of Chadiza’s Kamuseche village in Chief Zingalume’s area, said engaging in early marriage is like “jail” for girls.

“Most of the time you are not counted as a person at home by your husband. Sometimes you are beaten for no reason. There is a lot of abuse and you can’t withstand such. I decided to come out of the marriage and concentrate on school,” Bernadette explained.

Elediya, who is now 17, also of Kamuseche village, was married off at the age of 15, when she was in grade ten, but decided to end the marriage and went back to school.

She said since Plan introduced Champions of Change lessons, she and other girls have been transformed.

“Through the Champions of Change project, we (have) learnt public speaking,” she said.  “This time for me, I’m able to tell off men… in the past we just used to follow men anyhow.”

She said through the social movement groups, which have been formed in the villages, the girls are able to withdraw their colleagues who fall into early marriages because of pregnancies.

Bernadette and Elediya are not the only ones who share awful experiences of early marriages.

Some girls who were withdrawn from early marriages in Chadiza are back in school at Chanjowe Secondary and others have completed their secondary school education.

Stephen Phiri, currently Headman Kamuseche, is happy that the project is slowly yielding results. He told MakanDay that together with other headmen, a sensitisation initiative has been rolled out, after the headmen were trained by Plan International.

“To be frank, cases of teen pregnancies and early marriages have drastically reduced here and I’m happy about this development,” he said.

Headman Kamuseche said all the headmen in the chiefdom were handed by-laws to end early marriages and teen pregnancies. He said cases are handled by a committee at Chief Zingalume’s palace.

“The affected child, with the parents and the boy or man responsible, together with his parents, are summoned at the palace, where they are sensitised and later on punished,” he said. “Like here in Chanjowe ward, the punishment which is meted out is to mould bricks at Chanjowe School.”

Chief Madzimawe and Chieftainess Kawaza of Kasenengwa and Katete/Sinda districts respectively, who are the champions in the fight, have gone to the extent of dissolving marriages involving youths. The youths are then encouraged to return to school undert heir sponsorship.

Through the Madzimawe Foundation, more vulnerable children have been sponsored to complete their secondary school education and later enroll in colleges. The chief has formed committees in all the villages of his chiefdom to monitor the situation.

“We have declared zero tolerance towards teen pregnancies and early marriages,” he said.

In Chipangali, Council Chairperson Maxson Nkhoma blamed the high teen pregnancies among school going girls on lack of boarding facilities.

Mr Nkhoma said most children are forced to do weekly boarding in non-boarding schools, because they come from distant places.

He said the situation exposes girls to a lot of vices, including sexual abuse.

The Ministry of Education in the province is also aware of the problem.

Provincial Education Officer, Brainly Malambo said his office held a consultative meeting in June this year to help find a lasting solution to teenage pregnancies and GBV-related cases affecting girls.

“When I first reported in the province (this year), my first task was to target chiefs and headmen,” he said. “We held a meeting with Paramount Chief Mpezeni and we discussed how best we can prevent early marriages and teen pregnancies,” he revealed.

For Elediya, since the introduction of Plan International’s Champions of Change project, she and other girls in her village have been transformed to fend off early marriages.