Key Findings on Young Marriage, Parenthood and Divorce in Zambia
By Oliver Mweemba, Gillian Mann, Nikki van der Gaag; April 2021
In Zambia, marriage under the age of 21 is illegal, but 15 per cent of girls and young women aged 15 to 19 years are married or cohabiting, and 29 per cent have given birth. Despite these high prevalence rates, little is known about the views and experiences of those who are or have been in these relationships, and even less about the boys and young men who are involved as boyfriends, husbands, ex-husbands, fathers and sons-in-law.
© Crispin Hughes. Panos Pictures
The Young Marriage and Parenthood Study (YMAPS), a qualitative study carried out by Child Frontiers between 2018 and 2020, was conducted with young married, cohabiting and divorced children and young people in three communities in the Kalulushi, Mazabuka and Katete districts of Zambia. All of the participants were born and raised in contexts of poverty. YMAPS was funded by the International Development Research Centre. Sister studies were undertaken by Young Lives in Ethiopia, Peru and India (the states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana) as part of a four-country programme of comparative research. YMAPS was funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC).
This study explored the reasons why children and young people marry, cohabit and/or have children, and examined how they navigate their new roles and relationships, including parenting, separation and divorce, their experiences of support and services, as well as their varied motivations and aspirations. It involved individual interviews with 84 females and males aged 14-24 years, as well as group discussions and interviews with a variety of service providers, community leaders, parents of married children and young people, and married and unmarried teens. Digital story telling was also used with a small subset of the children and young people interviewed.
Born between 1994-2004, this generation has borne the brunt of the economic crisis that resulted from the national structural adjustment program, as well as the peak of the health crisis that accompanied the deadly HIV epidemic in Zambia. Many recall how their lives were irreparably transformed after their parents lost employment or died following an illness for which the family could not afford to seek treatment. The majority had left school early, either because of an inability to pay fees, or in order to undertake domestic responsibilities, to seek paid work, or as a result of pregnancy.
For these children and young people, marriage and/or cohabitation was most often precipitated by an unintended pregnancy, even if the pregnancy was the result of a one-night stand and the individuals involved were virtual strangers to each other. Some young couples married for love, but this was the least common reason given for marriage. Cohabitation was often forced on them by circumstance or family pressure, which affected the way the couple related to each other once living together. And while a number of boys and young men spoke of the joy they felt in sharing their lives with a caring partner, such views were rarely expressed by girls and young women, who tended to find happiness in marriage when it brought with it an improvement in material and financial circumstances.
Practical information on contraception and adolescent-friendly sexual and reproductive health services are difficult to obtain (and often stigmatised and stigmatising). Despite the well-known reality that girls and boys engage in sexual activities as early as the onset of puberty, health clinics and staff were said to be unfriendly to teenagers and to stigmatise those who wanted information on sexual health. Most of the information children and young people have on contraception was made available to them after they had become pregnant or their baby had been born. What young people do know they learn from school, grandparents, mothers (for boys), friends and community peer educators and is mostly incomplete, inaccurate and focused on abstinence and condom use (for boys).
Traditional gender roles prevail in young marriages and relationships, with girls and young women performing the majority of household work and childcare, and boys and young men being seen as providers, even when they find it hard to earn any income. Decision-making power tends to rest in the hands of male partners, but their agency is constrained when they have to rely on parents or other family members for support to meet their basic needs. The majority of young husbands feel that marriage has imposed upon them a series of responsibilities that they are unable to meet. Young wives agree and most express disappointment and frustration at their husbands’ or partners’ inability to care for them and their children. The weight of these pressures leaves the vast majority of male and female respondents disappointed that married life is not as they had expected it to be and that they do not have the maturity or financial stability to manage their problems effectively.
Sexual and physical violence are commonly experienced by married and cohabiting girls and young women and were the main reason for divorce among young couples. Maltreatment and cruelty were often related to alcohol abuse by young husbands and partners. Divorce was frequently initiated by the female partner and sometimes by supportive family members, often fathers or grandfathers, who sought to protect their daughter or grandchild. Most children and young people reported that despite the stigma and lack of support that they experienced as a result of being divorced, life has improved since their marriage ended.
The quality of young people’s relationships with their families of origin appears to be an important predictor of their capacity to manage the challenges that accompany marriage and parenthood. Those who have strong, supportive relationships with adult family members and are able to rely on them for advice, assistance with child care, and material and financial support, appear to feel less isolated and overwhelmed when they confront challenges. In the vast majority of cases, however, families struggle to meet their basic needs and hence the requirement to support married, cohabiting or divorced young people and their children places additional economic pressures on the entire household. This situation leaves all involved in even greater poverty and with fewer opportunities to forge improved lives.
Despite its challenges, parenthood enhances the self-respect and social standing of married and cohabiting young women and men. The vast majority describe the joy they find in being with their children and their commitment to building a better future for them. For young men, these joys relate in large part to the existence of their child as a demonstration of their virility and the continuation of their family line. Like young husbands and fathers, many girls and young women say that having a child to cherish is their main – and often only – joy in marriage. Many young parents focus their hopes on improving their children’s future and ensuring they are able to attend and complete school.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the challenges that young married, cohabiting and divorced couples experience in Zambia. Although the disease is new, the economic and health impacts it is having on individuals and families are all too familiar. To date, financial support for vulnerable households and interventions to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 are limited. Girls are struggling to return to school following COVID-related closures; households, especially in poor urban neighborhoods and rural areas, are again rationing the little resources available.
For more details on the findings of this study and its policy recommendations, please see: