Tanzania: Child Marriage - Law of Marriage Act Is Lost in Time (II)

Campaigning for a child marriage-free Tanzania (file photo).

Tanzania has an excellent and admirable record in ratifying many international treaties. In 2003, Tanzania ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, including Article 21 regarding the prohibition of child marriage.

In 2007, Tanzania ratified the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

In 1991, Tanzania ratified the Convention of the Rights of the Child. This Convention is designed to guarantee certain individual rights which are undermined or lost by children forced into early marriage.

However, again surprisingly, 31 percent of girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday and 5 percent are married before the age of 15.

Stunningly, according to UNICEF, Tanzania has the 11th highest absolute number of child brides in the world! In Tanzania, the Law of Marriage Act 1971 allows for boys to marry at 18 years and girls to marry at 14 with consent of a court, and at the age of 15 with parental consent.

Customary Laws run parallel to Statutory Laws. Local Customary Law (Declaration), Order, GN 279 of 1963 allows each ethnic group to make and follow decisions based on its own customs and traditions.

In Tanzania, the minimum age of marriage is not provided for in the Constitution. It is notable though, that on 8 July 2016, the High Court of Tanzania took steps to end child marriage for Tanzanian females.

In its decision, the Court ruled that Sections 13 and 17 of the Law of Marriage Act were unconstitutional.

I would therefore submit that for all of us as a society, including our legislatures, it is vital that what Tanzania has committed to under international and regional agreements should also be reflected in our national laws, policies, and regulations.

If we do not do this, and properly amend the Law of Marriage Act, it will be practically impossible to achieve real gender equality in Tanzania. Child marriage is contrary to Article 16(2) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Universal Declaration is specific in its General Recommendation Number 21, paragraph 36, that the "minimum age" mentioned in Article 16 (2), is 18 years for both men and women.

Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol, to which Tanzania is signatory), Article 2(a) says: "the minimum age of marriage for women shall be 18 years".

Article 21(2) of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child also requires states to prohibit child betrothal, and to pass legislation stating "the minimum age of marriage to be 18 years."

As a nation and as a civilized society, we are compelled to stamp out all areas that still work to encourage the backward looking practice of child marriage, whatever the reason, whether it be culture, traditions, religion, or poverty.

If we fail in doing this, as a nation we will fall short in fulfilling our commitment to eliminating child early and forced marriage by 2030 in line with Target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.

It is imperative that our culture, traditions and religious practices are able to be fluid and modernising, as we evolve into a civilised and socially progressive 21st century nation.

Perhaps we should take a leaf from our neighbouringUgandan Constitution, article 31(1), (b), which states that a man and a woman are entitled to marry only if they are each of the age of eighteen years and above, and are entitled at that age to equal rights at and in marriage, during the marriage, and at its dissolution.

This is great protective legislation, and very empowering for girls! I have mentioned poverty previously. It is clearly our number one problem.

It is very obvious that poor families have a financial incentive to sell their female children into marriage, either to settle debts or to make some money and potentially escape the cycle of poverty.

It is vital that these parents come to realise that child marriage is no real answer, and indeed itself fosters poverty; It ensures that girls who marry young will not be properly educated and will be prevented from productively participating in the workforce and from contributing to economic improvement either for themselves, their families, or for the nation.

It is equally important for the government to promote, support and adequately resource sound evidence based programs delivering preventative and support services directed toward strengthening and supporting families, and thereby reducing their reliance and ability to force their female children into early marriage.

Individually, and collectively as a society, we need to take on board that unless we change Sections 13 and 17 of the Law of Marriage Act in Tanzania, then with every child bride, as a society we potentially lose a future doctor, scientist, teacher, entrepreneur, or political leader.

The cost to all of us is tremendous, and we pay the price in the form of inefficient accumulation of capital and slower economic growth, amounting to trillions of Shillings which might otherwise have been used to develop future infrastructure such as schools and hospitals.

For Tanzania to meet the Sustainable Development Goal 3.1 target of reducing MMR to below 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births by the year 2030, there is the need for serious commitment and the development of effective social and economic strategies, not the least of which is to change out-dated marriage laws.

Let's all remember that every child is a gift to a family and to the nation, and should be regarded as such. Let us resolve that child marriage, which simply traps girls, their families, and new generations into a recurring cycle of poverty and higher maternal mortality, must be avoided at all costs.

● Dr Joseph Masika is a Public Health Consultant specializing in Child Protection, Child Marriage and Domestic violence against Women.

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