Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Are child marriages hard to end?

A little girl poses for a photo with her

A little girl poses for a photo with her ‘husband’ and son. A paper compiled by UNFPA-Tanzania says the consequences of child marriages include increased experience of domestic and sexual violence as well as maternal and infant health risks. PHOTO|AGENCIES 

By Sammy Awami,The Citizen

Dar es Salaam. Year in year out, one report after another and the story remains the same; that there are still hundreds of young Tanzanian girls, mostly in remote areas, who still fall in the filthy hands of men in the name of ‘marriage.’

There are sad stories including  one in late August, this year, where an eight-year-old girl was ‘stolen’ from her family in Iringa and taken to Mindukeni Village in Coast Region to be married as a second wife to a 38-year-old man identified only as Samson.

The little girl was made to share a room with Samson’s children and at night the man would come to their room, grab the girl from the bed, and defile her on the floor.

The girl, who at the time would have been at lower primary school - probably around Standard Three - reportedly said she endured pain for quite a long time, but later ‘got used’ to it as the humiliation became the norm.

The agonising story confirms facts from a paper compiled this year by the UNFPA-Tanzania, pointing out some of the consequences the little girls are subjected to when they find themselves in the kind of unions they have no understanding of.

The paper says the consequences include increased experience of domestic and sexual violence as well as maternal health and infant health risk.

It adds that “girls married early are more likely to experience violence, abuse and forced sexual relations.”

The account by the unidentified girl above represents hundreds of others which go unreported by the mainstream media.

Yet the million-dollar question remains: how much really is the Tanzanian society determined to end this inhumane culture and give meaning to the dignity of these innocent girls?

Although the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) 2012 report, Marrying Too Young: End Child Marriage, shows Tanzania is not in the world’s list of 41 countries where the prevalence of child marriage is 30 per cent or more, still it fares relatively poorly in the fight against the practice.

“I have to say we have made progress, but have a long way to go. The bottleneck is the Law of Marriage Act 1971, for one. Girls should have more access to education,” UNFPA gender programme officer Anna Holmström told this writer earlier.

Meanwhile, the minister for Legal and Constitutional Affairs Mathias Chikawe, a few days ago shared very encouraging comments about his personal desire to see child marriages put to an end. He said he has written to the Constitution Review Commission specifically about two things: ending capital punishment and child marriages.

According to Mr Chikawe, word has it that there is a good chance key changes would be made in the new constitution and ensure the current outdated law is replaced.

The Law of Marriage Act of 1971 allows girls to marry at 15 and boys at 18. It goes further to state that boys and girls can get married at 14 if the court issues permission.

While Chikawe and other stakeholders’ commitment is commendable, the tricky part about ending the problem is that it is not only rooted in legal entanglement, but also goes widely to the question of tradition, education and even poverty.

The Tanzania Demographic and Health Statistics (TDHS) report, for instance, notes that household wealth influences the prevalence of child marriage among all wealth quiltings.

It goes on to say that “girls from the poorest 20 per cent of households were more than twice as likely to be married or in union before age 18 than girls from the richest 20 per cent of households.”

Last week at a high-level panel organised by the United Nations Population Fund, the director of Kiota for Women’s Health and Development (Kiwohede), who is also the chairperson of the Tanzania Ending Child Marriage Network, Ms Justa Mwaituka, strongly spoke against some parents who have played a big role in misleading their daughters into inappropriate unions for selfish reasons or simply on old fashioned traditions.

Ms Mwaituka shared a personal story of how her responsible dad fiercely ended her attempt to shorten school in an attempt to take her into marriage.

Narrating, she recalled the day her dad beat her and her fiancé up and made clear to them no marriage arrangements would be entertained before Mwaituka acquired higher education. 

Nelson Mandela’s wife Graca Machel, one of Africa’s leading champions against child marriages may have summed the situation very accurately on what should be done.  She said education was the remedy.

 She is quoted as saying the message that child marriages can end should be the goal of communities if they are to eradicate the problem by 2030.

“To be successful in eradicating child marriages by 2030, there is no village, no township, no corner of this great continent that should not hear the message that this practice can end” says Mama Machel.

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