As a young activist, 29-year-old Rebeca Gyumi challenged the child Marriage Act in Tanzania and demanded to eliminate the inequality between the minimum age of marriage between boys and girls. In her crusade to challenge the Tanzanian law, she was silenced and weighed down, but she survived and went on to receive United Nation’s first global goal awards in ending child marriage in the country and recently bagged IVLP (International Visitor Leadership Program) award for social innovation and change.
Success got to interview Rebeca to learn about her bold journey after the Marriage Act of 1971, which set the minimum age of girls to be married at 15 with parental consent and 14 with the permission of court, was ruled unconstitutional.
You solely challenged the national law that allows the marriage of girls from age 14 and in a few months the high court ruled it as unconstitutional. What was your pathway to making ‘ending child marriage’ your cause?
I worked with a youth initiative, Femina Hip, before I founded Msichana Initiative. I had the opportunity to travel and meet different communities here in Tanzania and in so doing, although most of the time my entry point was looking at youth issues but during the course of time I found out that girls issues were pressing and pertinent.
I was also exposed to different victims of child marriage in Tanzania. I was part of different advocacy meetings that were happening in my country that aimed at influencing decision makers to change this law and to be honest I felt there was minimal progress on it. Coming from a family, which strongly believes in girl empowerment, it was only fair that I pushed for the same agenda in my community.
Take me through the four walls of the court when you challenged the law, what was your strong stance?
It was an intense experience, firstly for the fact that someone looks at you as a team of young people trying to challenge something that has been there for a while and this situation came with that we needed to be prepared even more. Secondly, you have to know your issues really well, you have to speak with authority and you need to be prepared with facts. Example, the case studies of the girls who are affected from child marriage, to really back your case.
Thirdly, we had to be extra careful because someone could have easily dismissed the case for a mere fact that ‘why didn’t you get that name correctly’, so we knew the risk that was associated for the fact that we were very young. But end of the day, you have people who are supporting you, who are with you and you go with strong conviction in what you believe in and those were few things that helped us win the case.
In one of the interviews, you were quoted saying ‘law is only one of the steps in ending child marriage’. Can you talk more on this?
The issue of child marriage is multisectoral. It involves a lot of players and a lot of actors for it to end. I remember someone stating that ‘now you have won the case, child marriage is over in Tanzania’, but that’s not true. We have other drivers that are equally important to look at such as the social-cultural aspect. This includes the issue of religion, the issue of gender stereotype that is crowded around a boy and a girl child. These are all very important issues to look at and to be worked on.
What’s next after your initiative helps and rescues young girls from getting married? Have you partnered with other organisations to ensure that she gets the education she deserves?
Very unfortunately, we [Msichana Initiative] are currently not working on the rescuing part of the victims of child marriage. But we are in partnership with an organisation in Shinyanga, Agape Aids Control Programme. And what they do is exactly what you were saying.
We come in as an empowerment initiative that educates girls on their rights and how to stand up for their rights. We encourage them to be champions for others, that the step to say ‘no’ to child marriage is just not for themselves but for so many other girls whom they are advocating for. When these champions go back to their community, girls should at them as change agents.
If a child bride is reading this interview, for instance, and she needs help to either get out of the situation or demand her basic right such as education – where should she start?
The quick and widely spread institution that maybe these girls can find refuge in is the community development office, I believe its located in all the districts of Tanzania. There you will find a community development officer or social welfare officer who unfortunately don’t have a shelter for the girls, but will guide you. And that is happening with Agape as well, they have a lot of girls who are brought in from government organisations because the government doesn’t have a place to put them. I strongly advocate for the government to embrace this and institutionalise the shelter camps.
For instance we are working with one of the faith-based organisation in Masanga [in Tarime] who are rescuing girls fleeing female genital mutilation, which is also a driver for child marriage. It has a huge number. Last year they rescued 300 young girls and I was fortunate to be part of it and talking to them.
After the law of marriage act became unconstitutional to eliminate the inequality between the minimum age of marriage between boys and girls in July last year, what opportunities has it opened for you as an activist?
We [Msichana Initiative] were just 8 months old, and were getting the opportunity to be with the big networks here in Tanzania that are working on ending child marriage. And in August we prepared a strategic plan meeting for the Tanzania ending child marriage, tapping into our judgement focusing on harmonising efforts after the case. For instance, how are these organisations going to work together to put pressure for the change that we want it to happen. And this was important because when the government had appealed after the winning the case, we had all these organisations not just rallying behind us but were speaking with us that this is not okay, and questioning the government to justify why they appealed. We have a very clear law, it says Tanzania will end child marriage by putting a minimum age of 18, which levels the law with other laws, so if you are appealing, what are you trying to say? So it created a mobilised effort leveraging from what we had done already. We also got the opportunities to be recognised at regional and global platforms as a voice for people who are on the ground and to mobilise efforts on a global level. In the 20th AU summit, they discussed on how to accelerate efforts in ending child marriage and we were welcomed to share the best practice on what might work. And now we are part of a global movement chaired by UNICEF and UNFPA in ending child marriage. It’s an opportunity given to 9 organisations all over the world, and Msichana Initiative is part of it.
If you could have all the world leaders, including our President in one room and you have the mic and a minute – what is one message you would tell them?
I’ve never heard or read of any country in the world that has been able to attain its fullest economic potential without investing in its largest population and in Tanzania, we are speaking about women, girls and children. For us to harness the demographic dividend of our country, we need to invest in the highest population of our country. Having gender equality not just parity.
So have progressive laws that will definitely create a ban for child marriage. Ensure that we have the best certification as a mitigation mechanism. We have a lot of young girls who are being married, today, because somehow someone it cannot be proven that they are under 18. We need to have psycho-social support for these young girls and we need to invest in their education and health. And that’s when we’ll move forward as a country.
Who is Rebeca beyond the activism?
I’m a daughter to a beautiful mother and unfortunately a deceased father. I’m the eldest sister to other four siblings, maybe that is where the leadership comes from (laughs). I’m a friend, a colleague. I enjoy dining out with the people I love, I’m a movie fan, God fearing, goal driven and I like a good laugh. I’m a very indoor person when I’m not working. So if I’m not in the office, or at the conferences or travelling, you know where to bomb me (laughs again).
Where do you find your strength and courage to push yourself and sustain throughout your crusade over the past year in fighting for ending child marriage?
Sometimes I wonder. I get the strength from having a dream that inspires me everyday when I wake up thinking that I am not doing this just for myself. If I decide to keep quiet, I’m probably silencing a girl from Geita whom I met and said the exact same thing she wanted me to do and many girls like her. To have a cause bigger than myself, it has always moved me to do more, work beyond challenges even when I felt like I was silenced/., it drove me to do more.
Recently, I watched a film named ‘hidden figures’, which tells an untold true story of three African-American women at NASA who crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big. Do you think we have such figures in Tanzania, who have had a huge impact but aren’t recognised enough for their bold change?
We do have them and they are hidden in the four walls of our homes, our mothers. I think as a country and as a society we are not celebrating them enough. Mothers have gone an extra mile to provide, extra mile to deliver not just for their children but also to their communities at large. Food, shelter and making sure that you are being taken care of when you are ill and that I tell you is the power of any community. Our mothers are the ones who have nurtured us.
When you hear the phrase ‘Be Bold For Change’, that happens to be this year’s International Women’s Day theme, what’s the first thing that comes to your mind and how would you translate this to the youth?
Having true conviction in what you believe in and be confident to stand alone if you have to. Don’t be weighed down by status quo just because you have a different mind or outlook.
Have the ability to define your values and standing true to it.