Despite multiple interventions, child marriages are rising in Tanzania, exposing young girls to sexual exploitation while denying them the right to education, officials have warned.
Girls as young as 14 are being forced into marriage as the rising cost of living pushes families to the edge of survival.
In Tanzania’s northwestern Shinyanga region, the worst affected by drought, child marriages have doubled in just one year, officials said.
Deus Mhoja, a social welfare officer at the Shinyanga District Council, said 42 incidents of child marriages have been reported between January and August this year compared to 19 documented in 2021.
“We have been shocked by this trend. It suggests the situation elsewhere is even worse, as poor parents are desperate for money,” Mhoja told Anadolu Agency.
Tanzanian police last week rescued a 15-year-old girl who was due to be married off in Shinyanga with 200,000 Tanzanian shillings ($86) and 10 cows paid as dowry.
The marriage ceremony, scheduled to take place on Aug. 16 in the northwestern village of Manyada, was foiled by the police.
The girl, whose dreams of becoming a doctor had been crushed, had no choice but to heed her father’s wishes.
“Many such incidents are not reported because of the culture of silence,” said Mhoja.
Brihtone Rutajama, head of the Shinyanga Police Gender Desk, said the police have lodged criminal charges against both families.
“Many parents would rather marry off their daughters to get money,” she said.
Across the drought-hit region, families face desperate choices to survive as climate change depletes water sources and kills livestock.
Tanzania has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. On average, roughly two out of five girls are married before their 18th birthday. About 37% of women aged 20-24 were married off before the age of 18, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Child marriage is a serious problem in Tanzania affecting girls in rural areas.
Although Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971 sets the marriage age for boys at 18, it allows girls as young as 14 to get married with court or parental consent.
However, girls’ rights campaigners oppose the law because they say it violates girls’ right to an education, given that at that age, girls are not biologically ready to conceive, give birth and face the challenges of life.
Deeply rooted culture
In an interview with Anadolu Agency, Caroline Lagat, program officer with Equality Now, an international girls’ rights charity, said child marriages are caused by deeply rooted patriarchal, social and cultural norms that discriminate against women and girls.
“In families living in poverty and struggling with limited resources, it is more commonly girls who are withdrawn from school in order to work or be married off,” she said.
According to Lagat, parents often marry off their daughters to ease the family’s financial burden.
While teenage pregnancy is the root cause of girls leaving school and getting married, the government has failed to tackle sexual violence and coercion and is yet to roll out comprehensive sex education within Tanzania’s education curriculum, campaigners said.
Lagat called for quality sexual and reproductive health education, urging the government to ensure that girls are supported to complete their education while fighting social and economic inequalities that make women and girls vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
“Efforts to eradicate violence against girls and women must be stepped up, and laws against sexual and gender-based violence need to be better enforced to ensure that offenders are punished,” she said.
According to her, conflicting laws on child marriages in Tanzania have left yawning gaps and created fertile grounds for rights violations against girls.
“The law is a powerful tool when combating harmful practices such as child marriages and defines the obligations that a government has committed to delivering protection,” she said.
Dilemma for girls
While activists are banking on the law to grant girls access to justice when their rights are violated, the Marriage Act of 1971 prohibits boys from being married before the age of 18 but allows girls as young as 14 to be married with parental or court consent.
“This fundamental gap in the law doesn’t provide equal protection and is a form of gender-based discrimination against girls,” Lagat said.
She said Tanzanian law violates international law by allowing discrimination against girls whose minimum age of marriage is lower than for boys.
International human rights law recognizes a child as anyone between the ages 0 and 18.
According to Lagat, allowing girls to be married while they are still children exposes them to other human rights abuses.
“Child marriage traps many girls in a cycle of poverty and prevents them from reaching their full potential,” she said.
The constitutionality of Tanzania’s marriage law was challenged by the Msichana Initiative, a Dar es Salaam-based girls’ rights non-governmental organization (NGO), in 2016, in which the court ruled that marriage under the age of 18 was unconstitutional and ordered the government to raise the minimum threshold for marriage to 18 for both girls and boys within one year.
“It is lamentable that the government has yet to comply with this order and amend the Marriage Act,” Lagat said.
In 2020, Equality Now and partners filed a joint case at the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, seeking to overturn the country’s discriminatory policy of expelling pregnant girls from school and banning adolescent mothers from returning to school after giving birth.
“Tanzania should invest in sensitization programs to ensure a safe and enabling environment for teenage mothers to continue their education, free from social stigma,” she said.
Lagat urged the government to take an active role in protecting girls’ rights by training officials to prevent child marriage and prosecute cases.
“Survivors of child marriage should have access to justice and the perpetrators should be held accountable,” she said.
Lagat urged the government to collect comprehensive child marriage data to inform the development and implementation of programs aimed at addressing the problem and empowering girls to reach their full potential.