It may come as a surprise that child marriage is still a serious problem in the communities around Solwezi. After all, you might have heard that the legal age for marriage in Zambia is eighteen, just like in most countries.

The difference in Zambia is that “mainstream law” (which applies to all Zambians) and “traditional law” (which applies to certain population groups) both have equal weight. And, according to traditional law, young women are considered of marriageable age as soon as they reach the unquantifiable and vague stage of life known as “puberty”.

This has created a terrifying reality for countless girls that all too often gets swept under the carpet. Although the problems that child marriage poses are manifold, people’s knowledge of the consequences is often severely lacking.

The most devastating consequence of child marriage is generally easy to communicate: Children below the age of 15 have a 50 percent chance of not surviving childbirth.

Since 2013, Kansanshi Mine has been working tirelessly to inform rural communities in Solwezi and its surrounds about the implications of child marriage, and to lay bare the facts. The most devastating consequence of child marriage is generally easy to communicate: for many child brides, childbirth is deadly.

Bruce Lewis, Corporate Social Responsibility Manager at First Quantum Minerals (which owns 80 percent of Kansanshi Mining PLC) explains: “Children in marriage literally have a 50 percent chance of survival should they fall pregnant. To me, that’s the most shocking and depressing statistic.”

He and his team keep a close eye on statistics as part of their wide-ranging efforts to reduce cases of gender-based violence in the communities surrounding Solwezi, of which child marriage is one example.

“There’s a conflict between traditional law and mainstream law,” says Lewis. “So, if people are charged with an infringement of the Child Marriage Act, all they need to do is claim traditional law. The Zambian government is working hard to try and close that loophole with legislation that is coming out imminently, I believe.”

In the meantime, the team at Kansanshi has their work cut out for them. Fortunately, they are not alone in their commitment to end gender-based violence in the region. “We’ve been working very closely with one particular non-governmental organisation that’s extremely dedicated to what they do – the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA).”

The YWCA has a team of volunteers that includes paralegals and trauma counsellors who manage a One Stop Centre for gender-based violence that Kansanshi built at the local hospital. It was the YWCA that initially approached the mine to enlist its support in this battle. They helped the mine realise how widespread child marriage was, and the extent to which it stunts the region’s development. “They started telling us about what they do, and we became very interested in getting involved. After we built the One Stop Centre for gender-based violence, we acquired a safe house for victims,” says Lewis.

Over the years, word has spread about the important work that Kansanshi has been doing. People know that if they – or anyone in the community – has a problem, they can visit the hospital’s One Stop Centre. Kansanshi’s involvement in the removal of children from marriage has encouraged people to report concerning cases.

“Our first priority is to determine whether the child wants to be in the marriage,” says Lewis. Although they are minors, child brides have complete autonomy, and the decision to stay in a marriage or leave is entirely theirs. “If the child indicates that she’s not happy, or she doesn’t want to be there, then we act,” says Lewis.

Kansanshi’s team ensures that the risks associated with early marriage are clearly conveyed both to children in early marriages and their parents during proper consultation. Only if the child is clear about her desire to leave a marriage, does Kansanshi step in.

“We supply the transport and the logistics,” explains Lewis. “When children are removed from marriage, there’s usually quite a lot of protest from the husband. He has paid a comparatively large sum of money – almost his life savings – for this bride, and now we are destroying his so-called ‘investment’.”

A survivor of Gender Based Violence gives a testimony

It’s a sensitive undertaking. Kansanshi works closely with the YWCA to ensure that intervention in early marriages is done in a way that is respectful of the child and the community.

The child’s parents are, of course, beneficiaries of such “investments”, so endeavouring to influence their views on the practice is part of the process, and very important for the child’s protection.

“We put a lot of effort into counselling these parents. And if we get the feeling that it’s been effective, first prize is to put the child back with her parents.”

It isn’t always that easy, unfortunately. “If we suspect that the husband is going to come chasing after the child, the child can elect to be placed in a safe house.”

Reintegration into a safe environment is attempted as soon as possible, usually after two months. This is when addressing the root of the problem – the reason that parents are compelled to marry their children off so early – becomes key. Whenever Kansanshi’s team removes a child from an early marriage, they take it upon themselves to ensure that the child’s school fees are covered to alleviate impoverished parents’ financial burden.

Word has spread about the important work Kansanshi and the YWCA are doing, and people know that if they have a problem, they can visit the hospital’s One Stop Centre.

“Typically these rural families wouldn’t be able to afford to send their children to high school,” explains Lewis. “We put the child back into school and we buy all the stationery, school uniforms, and cover all the costs. We normally support the child until the end of high school, but there are a few cases where we’ve supported children right into tertiary education. So there’s no reason for the child to want to or need to go back into marriage.”

In all the years that FQM has been involved in removing children from early marriages, there has only been one case of a child that returned to marriage, who actually wanted to be there.

The YWCA and Lewis’ team keep a close eye on the numbers, and gather statistics for every case of gender-based violence that is reported, from assault cases to early marriage. The decrease in cases across the board is extremely encouraging.

“We can’t prescribe everything to our efforts,” Lewis says, modestly. “But there’s been a change. We haven’t had a child marriage case in the last eight months. Something’s working.”

See also: Marriage can come later