New research uncovers Zambian teens' turbulent experiences of marriage, parenthood, separation and divorce and identifies support needed for young married and co-habiting couples.
Note: This research was due to be launched in a national event in Zambia this month. Due to Covid-19 this has now been postponed until further notice and in these new circumstances we are publishing the research on-line and on our social media platforms. We are developing ideas for creating conversations around this work both nationally and internationally including through a webinar and greater online content. Look out for our Ethiopia country research on the same topic to be published in early April.
Zambian law prohibits marriage under 21 but the practise, driven by circumstance, stubbornly persists, albeit increasingly as informal cohabitations which are inseparable from pregnancy and parenthood. For many adolescents, who lack the experience, emotional maturity and financial resources to cope, they are a complex and challenging experience, rarely investigated until now.
New research, published today as part of Young Lives' and Child Frontiers multi country Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), documents the experiences of young Zambians who are married or cohabiting before the age of 18 and of many who became parents in their teens. It exposes the challenges they face as they navigate these adult roles and responsibilities.
“Although much is known about what causes teens to marry, little, if anything, is known about what life is like for young people who are married or parents or divorced in their teens. This common feature of adolescence in Zambia, particularly the role played by boys and young men, has been largely overlooked” Gillian Mann of Child Frontiers, one of the report’s authors.
The authors identify what support these young people need in order to improve their lives and those of their children, signalling policies that would bolster efforts towards the UN Sustainable Development Goal to end child marriage by 2030 and ultimately help break the cycle of poverty and gender inequality in Zambia.
The researchers interviewed 84 young people aged 14 to 24 years who live in impoverished conditions in 3 communities in the Kalulushi, Mazabuka and Katete districts of Zambia.
- Most teens interviewed had not wanted to get married, but had done so because of poverty, family pressure or an unintended pregnancy
- Pregnancy, marriage or cohabitation and parenthood were nearly always inseparable in young peoples' lives
“We found cohabitation much more common than customary marriage. Yet in all 3 communities, young couples, and almost always parents, family members and the community at large thought of cohabitation as ‘marriage’, bringing with it the same responsibilities. Many young people told us they were forced by families to cohabit in order to ‘put right’ an unintended pregnancy" Oliver Mweemba, the report’s co-author.
- Marriage is appreciated for different reasons by girls and young women and boys and young men. Young people rarely described these marriages in positive terms often recounting facing numerous problems, from financial hardship and the loss of education, to infidelity and domestic violence.
- Most young husbands felt that marriage had imposed on them a series of responsibilities they were unable to meet. Becoming a husband and father meant giving up on their dreams to complete secondary school and their ability to find a secure job.
- Girls and young women, with very little decision making power in relationships, and often experiencing sexual and physical violence, generally only found happiness in marriage when their material and financial circumstances had improved.
- Marital conflict and divorce are extremely common among young people for four main reasons: the inability of the husband or the partner to meet the economic and material needs of the household; unfaithfulness and lack of trust within the couple; physical violence; and abandonment of the wife by the husband.
- Life was invariably harder for divorced or separated young girls who relied heavily on their parents and extended family to meet their basic needs and those of their children.
- Despite the challenges, all the young parents interviewed described the joy they experienced from being with their young child(ren). The research found that parenthood is a means of fulfilling expected social roles and achieving social standing.
- The children and young people interviewed shared similar hopes and plans for the future; the greatest desire was to re-enrol in school and complete secondary education. They also dreamed of being able to provide well for their families. Some young parents focussed their hopes on improving their children’s future.
The research reveals the complex and varying experiences of young Zambians who are married, separated, divorced or parents. Often feeling trapped and unhappy, the vast majority said they had married too young, and felt that in marrying they had left one set of problems only to arrive at another. The researchers found they were trying to manage adult problems without the maturity, life experience or support to do so.
Gillian Mann: “They need more information and support on sexual and reproductive health, basic child care, early childhood development, conflict resolution and relationship counselling"
The authors offer a series of recommendations aimed to support young people who, despite the law against child marriage, are driven into such unions by a combination of poverty and other factors.
Two YMAPS country reports are already available, India and Peru (in Spanish). A comparative report, drawing out findings across all four reports and an international policy brief will be published in Spring/Summer. For more on this research take a look at our webpage here and follow us on Twitter @yloxford and Facebook.