Child marriage is now illegal in Tanzania. The two-year legal battle ended on October 23, when sections 13 and 17 of Tanzania’s Law of Marriage Act were declared “unconstitutional” by the Tanzanian Supreme Court of Appeal.
Before the 2016 ruling, girls aged 14 and above could get married with the consent of a court, and girls aged 15 and above could be married with parental consent. Boys, according to the Law of Marriage Act 1971 are only permitted to get married aged 18 and above.
Thirty-one per cent of girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday. Another two out of five girls are given up for marriage before the age of 15, and almost one in four have their first child before the age of 18. The East African nation has the 11th highest number of child brides in the world.
Dr Agnes Odhiambo, Senior Researcher at the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch said: “This is a victory for the many girls in Tanzania who have been suffering unnecessarily because of government failure to outlaw child marriage.
“The government of Tanzania, for some time, has been sending mixed messages about where it stands on protecting the right of girls.
“It’s also very outrageous for the country’s Attorney General to say that marriage is protecting for girls, where research that we have done… shows that child marriage is very dangerous for girls.”
In 2017, Dr Odhiambho, writing for Human Rights Watch, discussed the discriminatory practices, linked to child marriages which Tanzania’s girls face.
Sexual abuse by teachers is common in Tanzanian schools: girls are often punished when they fall pregnant, while teachers are spared by the law and the community. A 2011 report by UNICEF reveals that one in ten girls in Tanzania experiences sexual violence by a teacher.
“What we have seen when we are on the ground in Tanzania is issues around reproductive health,” Dr Odhiambho continued.
“There is an impact on girls who have to give birth when they are very young. Some of them often die during childbirth, while others develop serious injuries.
“What is also seen [on the ground] is the issue with violence,” she added, explaining that husbands and in-laws of child brides often abuse them physically and psychologically.
“Some girls feel isolated within the family, they feel that they don’t have a lot of friends, causing them a lot of emotional trauma. Some of them, also, are under a lot of domestic violence.
“Some of them are also telling us of being raped in their marriage. They are not ready for the marriage, they are not ready to have sex in marriage, and so their husband forces them to have sex.”
Child marriage is not just a societal problem, but an economic one. The costs of not keeping girls in education further encourages national poverty, because uneducated girls do not generate a big income to the country.
“Ending child marriage could generate benefits worth $5 billion per year by 2030 thanks to lower population growth thereby higher standards of living and lower poverty,” reads a report from the World Bank titled: “The Power of Investing in Girls”.
“The boost for Tanzania’s economy that ending child marriage, preventing early childbearing, and investing in girls’ education would provide would help poverty reduction efforts, as high population growth makes it especially difficult to achieve sustained reductions in poverty over time.”
Quentin Wodon, World Bank lead economist and co-author of the report said: “If women who married as girls had been able to delay their marriage, their annual earnings today could have been higher by more than $600 million. Ending child marriage and educating girls is not only the right thing to do, it is also a smart investment.”
The President of Tanzania, Jon Magufuli, once said that girls who became pregnant would not be allowed back to school, to discourage other schoolgirls from having sex. Under his presidency, schools routinely carry out mandatory pregnancy tests, “a serious infringement of girls’ rights to privacy, equality, and autonomy”, Ellen Martinez, Children’s Rights Division Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch argued.
The ruling of the Court of Appeal is a great step into safeguarding the political, societal and financial future of millions of girls in Tanzania.