She had not finished her story and half the audience were in tears as Kalunde narrated her story.
Kalunde, who is from Shinyanga, is not alone. Organisations working with children will tell you that such stories happen from one end of Tanzania to the other. They are a stark reminder that a very vulnerable group in our society – the Girl Child – is in need of an intervention, NOW.
According to the 2010 Tanzania Demographic Health Survey, on average, four out of 10 girls are married before the age of 18 in Tanzania. It is estimated that 37 per cent of women between 20-24 years old in 2000-2011 were married or in union by the age of 18.
And statistics show that the prevalence in our country is highest in Shinyanga (59 per cent), followed by Tabora (58 per cent), Mara (55 per cent), Dodoma (51 per cent). In Pemba, in every ten school girls, five drop out due to child marriage.
In the past ten years, it has emerged that child marriage is one of the most neglected human rights violations. A number of reasons come into play in relation to child marriage in Tanzania. First is the 1971 Marriage Act (cap 29 R.E 2002) which allows for girls as young as 14 (with special court permission), and 15-year old girls to get married (with parent/guardian special permission), and the Local Customary Law (Declaration) Order, GN 279 of 1963 which allows ethnic groups to follow and make decisions based on their customs and traditions.
Second, and this is broad, is the fact that child marriage is almost exclusively within the context of poverty, harmful traditional practices and gender inequality. It is part of the social, cultural and economic dimensions that we live in.
According to a research done by Child Dignity Forum, girls from the poorest 20 per cent of the households were more than twice as likely to be married/in union before age 18 than girls from the richest 20 per cent of the households.
Poor families also marry off their girls as a means of protection, usually to older men. Also in poor families, marrying off the girl child is usually the best option of avoiding the responsibility of looking after a relative’s child.
Furthermore in a poor family a girl does not carry the same level of importance as a boy and in poor families it is therefore not important to educate daughters as is the case of the sons.
In the context of harmful traditional practices, bride price also falls under this whereby among the poor, marrying off the girl is a way of attaining wealth, that is to say, the girls are used as a commodity. Additionally, there is the issue of female genital mutilation (FGM). In societies where FGM is practiced, this is a rite of passage to adulthood and a sign that the girl is ready for marriage.
In the case of gender inequality, child marriage lowers or takes away the girl’s ability to make decision on her health, education and her overall development. Healthwise, child marriage results in early child bearing and many children. This is because these girls lack any knowledge of contraception and have no negotiating powers in the marriage.
The World Health Organisation estimates that the maternal mortality rate can be up to five times higher for girls aged between 10 and 14 than for women of about 20 years of age.
The age difference between the girl and the husband and her low economic status make it almost impossible for the girl to negotiate safe sex or demand fidelity.
Child marriage usually means that young girls enter marriage without adequate information about sexual intercourse, contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and childbirth.
In terms of education, more years of schooling have been associated with many positive outcomes, including later ages of marriage, healthier and better educated children, and economic development.
Child marriage denies girls the right to the education needed for personal development, preparation for adulthood, and effective contribution to the family and society.
Taking all this into account, in child marriage, it is not only the girl child who suffers but also the society through population pressure, health care costs and lost opportunities of human development. While birth, marriage and death are the three key events in most people’s lives, only one – marriage – is a matter of choice.
Girls in Tanzania should have a chance of exercising their right to choose in this key event of their lives. As we celebrate this year’s Day of the Girl Child it is also a time to advocate for further action to address the needs of children in our country; focus on the work of all actors committed to the rights of children and to consolidate efforts in addressing the obstacles to realizing these rights.
The day will also provide an occasion for the government of Tanzania, civil society organisations, communities and international organisations in the country to renew their on-going commitments towards improving the plight of the country’s girls.
However, political commitment, daring leadership and champions at all levels are urgently needed to successfully combat child marriage. Every girl child should grow knowing she is loved and protected and everyone will endeavour to prevent her getting married and instead ensure that she realises her potential.
She will, like her brother, enjoy her childhood, and grow up to make a positive contribution to the development of her country. Collectively we each have a part to play in the campaign against Child Marriage. As we commemorate the day, no girl in Tanzania needs to go through Kalunde’s plight.
“When morning came, and I went to fetch water, I asked some of the girls about where I could go as I did not want to get married. They said I had to because we had to listen to our parents. I did not know where to go.
“On the eve of my marriage, I heard on the radio about AGAPE centre, and they said it was in some area which I did not know but knew I had to find. I waited for the people to sleep. Then I got out of bed and crept out of the room.
“My aunties, who were sleeping in the room to prepare me for the wedding next day, asked me where I was going and I said I was going to the toilet. And I went out and started running. I ran and I was crying because I was scared I might be eaten by wild animals.
“I ran and when I was very tired and just ready to lie down and wait for the animals to come and take me, I came across this lady who was going to fetch water, it was already the day of my wedding, and she asked me where I was going and I was crying and telling her I don’t want to get married and I was looking for AGAPE centre. She wiped away my tears and took me to the centre.”
Valerie N. Msoka is Champion against Child Forced and Early Marriage and Chairperson of the Tanzania Ending Child Marriage Network.