Margaret Musonda’s campaign against the abuse of children in Zambia has drawn comparisons with globally renowned children’s rights activist, Pakistani Malala Yousafzai.
Barely 17 years old, Musonda is tipped to become Zambia’s future president.
Orphaned at the age of seven, the Grade 12 pupil at Keemba Secondary School, Monze District, has become the face of the struggle against the abuse of children and a source of hope for millions of minors in the sub-region, which is infamous for the high prevalence of child marriages.
“Campaigning for the rights of children has been a significant part of me. Being an orphan has prompted me to always put extra effort into what I do,” said Musonda, the only girl among three children their parents left at a young age.
“Children endure the most violations. We have to stand up and work together. It must start with us,” the teenager said in Johannesburg this week. She aspires to enter politics later in life.
Part of her advocacy is to stop child marriage, which is associated with high levels of poverty.
In Zambia, it is seen as a rural phenomenon, although there are reported cases of child marriages in urban areas.
Poverty is believed to lead many parents to take their young daughters out of school to offer them in marriage to older men in exchange for lobola.
“The involvement of parents and relatives in the defilement and rape of children is alarming. It is disheartening that, most of the time, such violations are swept under the carpet, which compounds the suffering of the children,” she said.
"It has to be done"
Musonda is a chairperson of the Choongo Chiefdom Child Protection Council and a trainee reporter with a local community radio station.
The council consists of girls and boys, and was formed in 2015 with support from nongovernmental organisations, traditional leaders and the district’s education board.
Musonda and her group have started a radio programme to highlight violations of children’s rights in the community and to campaign to end child marriages.
Community leader Betty Mwiza said: “I am personally astonished at Musonda’s confidence to deliver the key messages and at her in-depth knowledge on child protection issues.
“The way she shares her thoughts and views amazes everyone who listens to the programmes.”
Musonda recently represented children at the announcement of a campaign to stop child marriages and violence against children in southern Africa.
This was an initiative by Christian humanitarian organisation World Vision and other development organisations.
Musonda said advocating children’s rights was rough terrain because of centuries-old traditional beliefs and fear of victimisation.
“It is scary at times,” she conceded. “However, it has to be done.
“We have systems in place to report and investigate a case anonymously.
"Some children are scared, but I encourage them to report the violations. We have been taught how to report. There are centres established for that purpose.
"We can also report to teachers or neighbours,” said Musonda.
Often, the aggressors are known to the victims.
Florence Mulenga, sponsorship facilitator at World Vision Zambia, said they were allowing children to make their voices heard.
“We are seeing the results of this process as children are growing in confidence and self-esteem,” she said.
The campaign has led to laws being put in place to address child marriage and abuse.
They include the Marriage Act, which has set the legal age for marriage at 18 for women and 21 for men.
The penal code makes sexual intercourse with someone who is younger than 16 an offence in Zambia.
However, these provisions rarely apply in customary law, where marriage can take place from puberty.
It is common for girls to be married off or have sexual relations when they are younger than 16.
Musonda pointed out that, while the laws were in place, they were not being implemented, leading to many culprits escaping the might of the law.
17 September 2017 - By Arnold Mulenga in Lusaka