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How safe spaces prevent child marriage

PETAUKE, Zambia – “I have learned that as a girl, I also have a voice in my community. I can speak out when things are wrong, such as when I’m forced to marry before I complete school,” says Alifonsino, 12, from rural Petauke in Eastern Zambia.

Two years ago she dropped out of school due to limited support from her family. Many of her older peers in her village were married off at an early age and she worried that it might happen to her too.

Alifonsino’s fear was not misplaced. In Zambia, an estimated 31 per cent of girls are married before their eighteenth birthday – one of the highest rates of child marriage globally.

Girls living in poor rural areas are most likely to be married young. Economic hardship, lack of education, early pregnancy and the perceived burden and low value of girls in society drive this harmful practice.

Building girls' self-esteem

Thanks to weekly lessons we have at the safe space, my parents and I have learnt the value of education. - Alifonsino, 12

Life changed for the better when Alifonsino began attending a safe space for girls, run by the Young Womens’ Christian Association of Zambia (YWCA) with technical and financial support from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, in Zambia. Implemented as part of UNFPA’s ‘Action for Adolescent Girls’, the safe spaces have since 2015 reached more than 5,000 girls like Alifonso in the six districts of Samfya, Milenge, Katete, Petauke, Solwezi and Mongu.

Says Alifonsino: “Thanks to the weekly lessons we have at the safe space, my parents and I have learnt the value of education. I have now gone back to school [grade one] at Senya primary school.”

Spreading the word

Girls with their mentor at a weekly safe space group meeting. © YWCA Zambia

I don’t miss a single session. If I have any problems or issues I’m able to speak to my mentor and get her advice. – child bride Sena, 17

A mentor poses for a photo with a group of girls enrolled in the safe spaces supported by UNFPA, in Milenge district of Luapula Province. © YWCA Zambia

The safe spaces involve a weekly girls’ group meeting with a mentor who provides training on health, leadership and life skills, as well as discusses issues that affect girls, including child marriage and adolescent pregnancy, and how they can seek help. The mentors aim to build girls’ protective assets as well as create an environment where they can find friendship and support from a group of girls their age.

Sena, 17, who was forced into marriage when she was fifteen years old, has high praise for the YWCA safe space she enrolled in: “Before I joined the safe space, it was difficult for me to save money. But now I am better at managing my finances. I feel very good about the group meetings and I don’t miss a single session. If I have any problems or issues I’m able to speak to my mentor and get her advice.”

The safe spaces have a simple rule that boosts long-term impact. Capitalizing on girls’ ability to share knowledge and mobilize others is what makes this approach so powerful. Girls spread the word far beyond the four walls of the safe space.

National Strategy to End Child Marriage

But girls alone cannot bring an end to child marriage and that’s where government leadership is critical. In 2013, the Government of Zambia launched a country-wide campaign to end child marriage, focused on two angles: empowering traditional leaders to become champions of girls’ rights in their chiefdoms, and changing laws and policies to ensure that girls are legally protected from child marriage.

Considering the country’s statistics, such interventions are critical:

  • Zambia has a very large population of young people: 53 per cent of the population is aged below 18 years
  • Adolescent fertility rate: 141 per 1,000 girls aged 15-19 years
  • HIV prevalence among young people aged 15-24 years: 7 per cent (females 8 per cent, males 5 per cent)
  • Modern contraceptive use among sexually active 15-19 year-old girls: 18 per cent
  • 31 per cent of 20-24 year-old women were married before age 18
  • 29 per cent of girls aged between 15-19 years have begun child-bearing

2016 saw further developments, with the Government of Zambia launching its five-year National Strategy with the ambitious goal of ending child marriage by 2030. In 2015, Zambia co-hosted the African Girls’ Summit on Child Marriage, a demonstration of government commitment towards regional initiatives to protect girls’ rights.

By Precious Zandonda