Tanzania: Victory Against Child Marriage in Tanzania

Role playing by participants in the Berhane Hewan project in Amhara, Ethiopia. The girls are highlighting how decisions, such as whom and when they will marry, are made about their lives without their consent (file photo).

Girls and boys in Tanzania have cause to celebrate: child marriage is now illegal in the country.

Tanzania's Marriage Act of 1971 sets the minimum marriage age for girls at 15 with parental consent, and 18 for boys. It permits the marriage of 14-year-old children when a court is satisfied that special, although unspecified, circumstances exist.

In a landmark 2016 decision, a Tanzanian high court ruled these provisions unconstitutional, and directed the government to raise the legal age of marriage to 18 years for both girls and boys. This ruling followed a legal challenge by the Msichana Initiative, an organization advocating for girls' right to education in Tanzania. Their petition argued that the Marriage Act violated girls' fundamental rights to equality, dignity, and access to education, and contravened Tanzania's Law of the Child Act.

The Tanzania government appealed the decision, but this week, Tanzania's Court of Appeal upheld the 2016 High Court ruling.

Three in 10 girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday, according to United Nations estimates. Human Rights Watch has documented the devastating lifelong consequences for girls of child marriage, including impacts on girls' health when they become pregnant too young, the increased risks of domestic violence including marital rape, and how marriage and pregnancy ends their education. In Tanzania, school officials are permitted to expel married girls, and most girls have limited opportunities to return to formal schooling after they drop out.

The Tanzanian government has legal obligations to outlaw child marriage and end the harm suffered by girls. Having a strong law that provides for a standard minimum marriage age for boys and girls is a good starting point. Education is a key protection measure against underage marriages, and Tanzania should also end longstanding discrimination against girls in education, including by ensuring girls who become pregnant can continue their studies, and address widespread violence in schools. It is also important to engage communities on the importance of keeping girls in school and not marrying them off in their childhood. With these steps, girls in Tanzania can have the future they deserve, and be girls, not wives.

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