Let’s do the right thing: ending child marriage

12Oct 2021
By Valerie N Msoka
The Guardian
Let’s do the right thing: ending child marriage

“I WANTED to be a pilot. I wanted to fly to all those places my teacher told me about in class. My teacher had told me that if I study hard I could be a pilot. I was only in standard four but studied hard.” 

That was Tuma’s dream and so of many a girl child. But realising their dreams is a challenge for some, as Tuma tells us.

“….one day after school, father called me and said he had accepted nine cattle from Baba Kulwa so that he could marry me. Father said some of the cattle would be used to pay school fees for my two brothers. My crying started that day. My husband, Baba Kulwa, started beating me the night we got married because I did not want him to touch me. They did not tell me about him doing things to me. I did not like sleeping with Baba Kulwa because at the beginning he hurt me every night.

Then I got sick and my mother-in law said I would have a baby. Having the baby was so painful, it took too long and the baby died. The pain did not go away and then I kept wetting myself. And I then I started smelling and then the elder wives chased me away. No one wanted me. Mother helped me build this hut under this tree that I sit, think, cry and listen to the radio….”

In Tanzania, statistics show that nationally, two out of five girls get married before the age of 18. Several factors come to play in the continued practice of child marriage in Tanzania which include poverty, harmful traditional practices, gender inequality, the outdated and discriminatory Marriage Act of 1971 and lack of political will.

In 2016, the Court ruled the Law of Marriage Act of 1971 to be not only harmful and discriminatory, but also unconstitutional. This is because it allows for girls as young as 14 and 15 years old to get married (with parents/guardian special permission).

For boys the age of marriage is 18 years old.  The State appealed against the ruling citing customary, traditional, and religious values on marriage as the reasons behind the difference in the minimum age of marriage. These reasons were not good or strong enough in court because in October 2019 the Tanzania Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 ruling.

While the protracted debate to change the law continues, child marriage also continues in Tanzania and so too efforts to eradicate the practice. Among these efforts is one by Msichana Initiative which early this year brought together ten people as champions in raising the voice against child marriage as well highlighting its consequences to the girl, family, community and the nation.

The Champions bring to focus the various reports from global bodies such as UNFPA and UNICEF that show how child marriage results in high rates of maternal and child mortality; obstetric fistulae; premature birth; still birth; HIV and other domestic violations. Statistics show that girls younger than 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s.

To be able to champion the cause realistically, Msichana Initiative, with the support of UN Women, gave the champions firsthand knowledge on child marriage through interactions with various stakeholders that directly fight child marriages. In April the champions went to Shinyanga region and in September they were in Dodoma. These regions were purposefully chosen because statistically they are in the top five regions in cases of child marriages in Tanzania.

In Shinyanga they met with government leaders, religious and traditional leaders to exchange views as well as to learn from these bodies of their efforts to eradicate child marriage, the challenges faced and strategies used in ending child marriages in Shinyanga.  The champions also visited AGAPE to see how this organisation can be further supported as a center for rescued girls. John Myola is one of the champions and the Executive Director of AGAPE, he said:

“The visit was successful since the girls stories got to be heard by people who can take initiatives to assist them through their positions.  On the other side, the girls themselves got to meet champions and were inspired…. they were encouraged to let go of their unfortunate pasts and focus with school to achieve their big goals.”

In their various interactions with different stakeholders including government, religious and traditional leaders, the champions also got to be more aware of the fact that child marriage almost exclusively happens within the context of poverty and gender inequality and the fact that it also has social, cultural and economic dimensions. That the practice occurs more frequently among girls who are the least educated, poorest and living in rural areas.

Such awareness has led to a better understanding of the factors leading to child marriage and prompted action as Shamim Khan, Chairperson of Women Muslims, Tanzania Mainland (JUWAKITA) informs, “… young girls are not safe anywhere unless we transform community perspective on child marriages.

In the effort to do so, I managed to direct all JUWAKITA leaders at regional level to organize meetings to discuss engagement in eradicating Child Marriages based on the information I fed them. The meetings were conducted across all 26 regions in the country”.

The visits also gave the champions the knowledge to confidently and passionately advocate for change, “… through the actual testimonies of child marriage victims I can make informed arguments in parliament advocating for amendment of the law...I learnt that child marriages can be minimized if not abolished entirely, we just need the law amended so the loophole perpetuators’ use can be closed for good.

With all this I can persuade parliament that it is possible to abolish child marriages by adopting best practices and taking Shinyanga as a case study in lobbying for amendment of the law,” said Hon Ng’wasi Kamani

Having Members of Parliament among the champions interacting with the victims and stakeholders enables them to gain more insights on child marriages and learn of the various initiatives that communities are undertaking in the fight against child marriages.  This is because parliamentarians are uniquely positioned to shape, advance and implement frameworks that protect children.

They can lead to the development of relevant legislation and policies, pass budgets, monitor implementation, and ensure accountability to addressing and eliminating child marriage in Tanzania. And while most agree that amending the law alone will not eradicate child marriage, those working in the field will inform that it is used as a defense for those who want to marry off their girls. It is this that makes amending the LMA of 1971 an important factor in the fight against Child Marriage.

On December 19, 2011, the United Nations General Assembly declared October 11 as the International Day of the Girl Child, (IDGC) to recognize girls’ rights and the unique challenges they face around the world including gender-based violence, child marriages, poor learning opportunities and discrimination. At the same time, it is also a day to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfilment of their human rights.

In Tanzania it is another opportunity to push for the amendment of the LMA of 1971 as directed by the 2019 court ruling. The amendment, the ongoing strategies and advocacies against child marriage will prevent the marriage of those two out of five Tanzanian girls who get married before the age of 18. We will get the number to ZERO.

While the girl child has no say on the day she is born or dies, a fulfilment of her right is to achieve her dream and choose her life partner. As Tanzania commemorates the International Day of the Girl Child, let us ensure continued activities for the rights of the girl child and that the cry against the current Law of Marriage Act is heard and change is made. This will ensure our girls have a better chance than Tuma,

“…..I hear on the radio that there are some people fighting for girls like me and there is even a girl like me who went to court to say the law is unfair and the court agreed and said it should be changed. I know I will not be the pilot I dreamed to be because I am not getting better.

But I hope not many more girls will have to go my journey before the leaders make the changes. I think they will because they are chosen to be in that big house in Dodoma for being bold, decisive and visionary and also because they care for the people they serve, people like me or other girls like me…I think they will.”

Valerie N Msoka is a journalist, chairperson of the Tanzania Ending Child Marriage Network (TECMN), TAMWA member and Editor of the Online Newsletter-BintiAfrika Konnect.

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