• From campaigns organized by local organizations such as Tanzanian Ending Child Marriage Network (TECMN) to advocacy programs by the High Commission of Canada in Tanzania and those supported by the Ministry of Community Development, Gender and Children in collaboration with other bodies, the fight to end child marriages in Tanzania have been stiff and it seems like it is yielding fruits.

    In what looks like a step closer to ending the menace that has treated young girls as brides, last Friday Tanzania High Court raised the legal age of marriage for girls to 18, a move that will help to put an end to child marriages in the country.

    In Tanzania, it is estimated that 2 of every five women are married before their 18th birthday, often against their will.

    The new ruling has opposed two sections of the 1971 Marriage Act that allows girls to marry at 15 with parental consent and 14 with the permission of a court, terming them as unconstitutional. The new development came barely a week after the East African country, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage globally, made it an offense for people to marry primary and secondary-school-age girls punishable by up to 30 years in prison.

    “Any person who impregnates a primary school or a secondary school girl commits an offense and shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term of 30 years.” The Attorney General of Tanzania, George Masaju, told parliament adding that the new policy is meant to complement that of free education that was launched in January. “We are aiming to create a better environment for our school girls to finish their studies without any barriers,” he added.

    While this is commendable, campaigners are worried that the impact would be minimal if parents do not take heed of the call and stop marrying off their children secretly for bride price rather than educating them, Thomson Reuters Foundation reported.

    “This ruling is a headway toward solving the problem, but it cannot by itself be the solution to child marriages,” Hellen-Kijo Bisimba, a women's rights campaigners and lawyer with the Legal and Human Rights Centre was quoted by the news outlet that covers humanitarian news.

    She noted that more has to be done especially in changing the perception that girls are an economic burden on their families or a commodity to be traded for bride price - or dowry.

    “Unless the general population is sufficiently enlightened to reject outdated traditional customs and the government puts in place effective strategies to alleviate poverty, we can hardly solve this problem.”

    The High Court ruling was made following a petition filed earlier this year by Rebecca Gyumi, founder of Msichana Initiative, a local charity promoting girls' rights. According to the local initiative, the Marriage Act violated girls' rights to equality, dignity, and access to education as granted by the constitution.

    In reaction to the ruling, Gyumi wrote on her Facebook page (Kiswahili) that “the victory should be taken as a beginning of a fresh battle to ensure that child marriage becomes history in our country.”

    Equality and creating awareness

    According to High Court Judge Ataula Munisi, the law was discriminatory and unfair because it allowed a girl of 14 to be married while males could only marry once they reach 18.

    The government has up to one year to amend the Marriage Act that will see both women and men marry at the legal age of 18 if they so wish.

    Raising awareness about the impact of early marriages especially on girls will play a critical role in ensuring that the issue is resolved. Young girls often face the increased risk of death or serious childbirth injuries as their bodies are not ready. Hindering girls from accessing education also increases levels of poverty in the community.

    A 2015/16 survey by the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics indicates that the country has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, and 21 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth. If well implemented, the new law could see these statistics reduce tremendously in the coming years.

    Image credit: plan-international.org