On the International Day of the Girl Child, activists in Tanzania strongly criticize the government for embracing a half-century-old marriage law that gives parents the right to marry underaged girls.
Campaigners say it denies girls the right to an education while crushing their future dreams.
Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971, sets the marriage age for boys at 18 while allowing girls as young as 14 to get married with court or parental consent.
But campaigners oppose the law because they say it violates girls’ right to education given that at that age girls are not biologically ready to conceive, give birth and face the challenges of raising a child.
Jean-Paul Murunga, a campaigner with Equality Now, a global charity working to defend young girls' rights, said Tanzania’s vague and contradictory laws have failed to define who is a child.
“The Tanzanian government has yet to review the Marriage Act to provide protection against child marriage,” Murunga told Anadolu Agency.
- Age of consent
Murunga, who leads the charity’s End Sexual Violence Team, said although the age of consent to matrimonial affairs in Tanzania is 18, there’s no stated limit for males, consequently, child brides are denied the right to consent and are frequently subjected to statutory rape, which often results in early, unwanted and forced pregnancy.
“Girls who are wed are often given little choice in when their marriage will take place or who their husband will be, and it is common for the groom to be older, sometimes substantially older,” he said
Child marriage is a serious public health problem in Africa. In Tanzania, the prevalence of child marriage is estimated at 37% with the majority of victims in rural areas.
The problem is often fueled by gender inequality and marriage-related social norms, pregnancy during adolescence, and poverty.
Almost one in three girls in Tanzania marry before they reach 18 and most have to drop out of school, according to Tamwa, a local charity tracking girls' rights.
Experts believe there is a strong correlation between child marriage, school dropout rates, early pregnancy, and HIV/AIDS.
Girl brides often experience a violent future as wives before they are physically and emotionally ready for sexual relations or become mothers.
Girls who are married before 18 are more likely to experience a range of other human rights violations, including physical and emotional violence, coercion, discrimination, and subordination in decision making, said Murunga.
He said that by having conflicting laws that permit girls to marry at 14 with a court's permission and 15 with parental consent, the Tanzanian government is exacerbating the denial of education to girls.
“Child marriages contribute to teenage pregnancy, which ultimately leads to girls being kicked out of school due to the government’s discriminatory policy of permanently expelling pregnant girls from school and banning adolescent mothers from returning to school after giving birth,” he said.
Tamwa and its Tanzanian partners have filed a joint case at the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights against Tanzania, seeking to overturn the discriminatory ban.
Activists believe that preventing pregnant girls and adolescent mothers from attending public school denies them access to education and keep many ensnared in a cycle of poverty, exposing them to further abuses, including female genital mutilation and sexual and labor exploitation.
The country’s controversial law on child marriage and the ban on teen mothers and pregnant schoolgirls, has denied many the opportunity to gain the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in life, said Murunga.
“They are prevented from securing the types of jobs that would enable them to raise themselves and their family out of poverty and contribute to their country’s economic development and prosperity,” he said.
- Move to law review
Campaigners are pushing for a repeal of the controversial laws permitting child marriage.
“We have supported local civil society organizations to draft amendments and share these with members of parliament for their input and validation before tabling such amendments for parliament to debate and pass,” he said
However, the government has been dallying dilly to implement the recent Court of Appeal judgment outlawing child marriage, on the pretext that consultations need to be done in the whole country, despite the existence of a court order mandating the amendments and repeal.
The East African country enacted several laws to protect women's and children's rights.
The Sexual Offences Special Provisions Act of 1998, which was enacted to protect women and children from sexual violence has virtually failed to address young girls’ vulnerability to rape, leaving them exposed to violent acts.
Girls who are married at young ages believe the culture of silence and family taboos were responsible for their predicament.
“The whole society feels that it is right for a young girl to be married, that’s why fighting underage marriage becomes difficult,” said Saida Abdul, who got pregnant and escaped a forced marriage.