Dar es Salaam. On July 8, this year, human rights activists had a reason to celebrate after the High Court declared early marriage illegal.
The court ruled unconstitutional sections 13 and 17 of the Law of Marriage Act, which allowed girls to marry at the age of 15 “with parents’ consent and at 14 with permission of a court.”
This was used as an excuse on the basis of religious beliefs and traditions that allow minors to be married, which violated their rights as children and human beings.
The new development came about after a case was filed at High Court by “Msichana Initiative,” an organisation which works closely with “Girls not Brides’ alliance.
The landmark decision by the court made it an offence for people to marry primary and secondary school age girls punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
Tanzania has one of the highest rates of child marriage in te world. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), many factors always contribute to place a girl at risk of marriage.
The factors include poverty, the perception that marriage will provide ‘protection’ to a young girl, family honour and social norms.
Others include customary or religious laws that condone the practice, an inadequate legislative framework, and the state of a country’s civil registration system.
Child marriage often compromises a girl’s development by resulting in early pregnancy and social isolation, interrupting her schooling, limiting her opportunities for career and vocational advancement.
Across the world, rates of child marriage are high in sub-Saharan Africa, where around four in 10 girls marry before the age 18.
About one in eight girls get married or find themselves in union before the age of 15.
Tanzania Demographic and Health Survey (TDHS) 2010 shows that two out of five girls are married before the age of 18, while more than 7,000 drop out of school every year because of pregnancy.
It also reveals that among young people aged between 20 and 24, less than 20 per cent of women had graduated from secondary school, compared to 32 per cent of men. In the same age group, 20 per cent of women had no education at all, compared to less than 10 per cent of men.
The significant progress made by the government to increase enrollment in primary school is commendable, but still a great number of girls, especially in rural areas, don’t complete their primary and secondary education because of early marriage, teenage pregnancy and poverty.
In 2014, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) said that every day in developing countries, 20,000 girls below the age 18 give birth. Nine in ten of these births occur within marriage or a union.
A report by Child Dignity’s Forum (CDF) also noted two years ago that incidents of child marriage in Tanzania were high, despite the fact that the country has signed and ratified a number of international and regional legal instruments relating to the protection of children’s rights.
They include the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACRWC), the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR).
It has ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (PACHPRRWA), International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) to mention but a few.
The early marriage issue in Tanzania and other developing countries has highly deteriorated efforts to rescue the girls from poverty, gender inequalities and discrimination.
As Tanzania and other members of the United Nations are preparing to celebrate International Girls’ Day tomorrow, ours is still one of the countries with high prevalence of child marriagies and pregnancies.
The UNFPA’s recent estimations suggest that in the next 10 years, about 1 million girls would be married under the age of 18 globally, with Africa covering 42 per cent of the general population.
Early marriages are directly linked with poverty, illiteracy and low level of formal education, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS).
That is why, the NSB says, young girls from poor families and rural areas are most vulnerable.
The NBS statistics show that 61 per cent of women, who are illiterate, get married under age 18 compared to literate’s 39 per cent.
Most girls from poverty families are reported to be vulnerable to early marriage and pregnancy.
This is mainly due to a tendency by parents wanting money as dowry that can sustain the family financially for some time.
Some of the testimonials provided recently by Plan International include that of a girl, 16, from Geita Region, who was forced by her father to drop out of school and get married.
When she refused, her father chased her away from home, something that led to her unplanned pregnancy.
Another girl, named Joyce, was raped and impregnated at the age of 16. She suffered silently after she had been raped by a family friend. “I kept quiet about the incident and continued with school as if all was well, but later it affected me psychologically and my future was destroyed,” she narrated.
The Plan International country director, Mr Jorgen Haldorsen, says: “The hard truth in Tanzania is that millions of girls are vulnerable because their cases are either not documented or followed up to know what is happening to them.”
Speaking to reporters recently, he said a report dubbed Counting the Invisible, reveals that worldwide, girls are effectively invisible to governments and policy makers because vital information about them is incomplete or not used to address the challenges they are grappling with.
Currently, no credible statistics exist worldwide that show the real life challenges facing girls, such as how many drop out of school due to early marriages, pregnancy or sexual violence, or how many girls become mothers under the age of 15 years, according to the report.
If at all, there won’t be thorough documentation and follow up of these cases, there’s a chance that the efforts to deal with the cases end up in vein because there’s no realisation of actual statistics.
The government has a key role to play in this to ensure that the country succeeds in addressing the problem as noted in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) it committed to ensure the overall protection of children and young people under 18.
In Sept 2015, Heads of State and Governments adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), achieving gender equality was agreed to be in place to transform the world by 2030.
“The 2030 Agenda promises to leave no one behind. But millions of girls and women will continue to be invisible and excluded in 2030 unless we have more gender sensitive data to inform the decisions and investments that can transform their lives to attain the SDGs”, explained Mr Haldorsen.
This being the case the government, development partners and civil society organizations must record and follow-up on girls’ circumstances if we are to meet the determined agenda set for 2030.