Tanzania: Landmark Child Marriage Ruling Rekindles Girls' Fading Dreams

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(File photo).

Veronica Nchagwa is a 14-year old standard six girl in Tanzania. Despite being bright, she is likely to become a bride before she attains 18 years, as her parents are planning to marry her off as soon as she finishes her Standard Seven education next year.

"My parents have already planned to marry me off after finishing standard seven," she says in an interview with the 'Daily News' recently.

At the back of her mind, she knows that her academic journey will be cut down, knowing for sure that nothing short of a miracle will turn the tables in her favor. "I'm just waiting for the day to come, because I cannot be able to oppose the plans of my parents," says Ms Nchagwa, praying for a miracle could happen, and make her parents allow her to pursue her education to university in order to chase her dream.

"Since I was young, I wished I could become a journalist so that I could speak for others and raise their voices, especially young people and children, but I can no longer dream about it anymore, considering that my parents have marriage plans for me," she says with a sad face.

But without her knowing, all is not lost, and they actually have a reason to celebrate, thanks to the Tanzania Court of Appeal for upholding a landmark 2016 ruling by the High Court against child marriage.

The landmark verdict in Dar es Salaam by Justices Augustine Mwarija, Winfrida Korosso and Mary Lavira sets the official marriage age for both men and women at 18 years.

Tanzania's High Court ruled that two sections of the 1971 Marriage Act that allow girls to marry at 15 with parental consent and 14 with the permission of a court, were unconstitutional.

The court thus ordered the government to amend the Marriage Act within the next year, and ruled that the legal marriage age for men and women should be recognized as 18 years.

The ruling was made in response to a petition filed by Rebecca Gyumi, founder of Msichana Initiative, a local charity promoting girls' rights. The group argued that the Marriage Act violates girls' rights to equality, dignity and access to education as granted by the constitution.

"The victory should be taken as a beginning of a fresh battle to ensure that child marriage becomes history in our country," she says amended earlier, it would have saved millions of girls who are currently subjected to early marriages.

"I wish the ruling came before I got married, I would have demanded for my right to education, knowing that the law defends me and works in my favor, but it is unfortunate," she says.

According to the 2015/16 Health Survey by the National Bureau of Statistics Tanzania (NBS), 12 per cent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth. Over 30 per cent of girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday. Activists say ending child marriage hinges on raising more awareness about its impact on girls.

Human Rights Advocate, Jean Paul Murunga, says the government through the ruling has a chance to ensure that the Law of Marriage Act is amended to reflect the minimum age of marriage ruling.

"We are ready to work with other civil society organizations in Tanzania as well as the government to ensure the necessary reforms and policy changes are initiated so that girls in Tanzania are able to enjoy their education, rights and freedoms from the abuse of child marriage," he says.

The former Legal and Human Rights Center Executive Director, Dr Helen Kijo-Bisimba urges for public awareness and change of perceptions that girls are an economic burden on their families or a commodity to be traded for bride price.

On the other hand, the Executive Director of Msichana Initiative, Ms Rebbeca Gyum urges for endorsement of the ruled law in order to give equal opportunities to girls and boys

. "We are doing various activities to ensure the parliament passes the bill towards the amendment of the law," she says.

The court ordered the government to amend the marriage Act within the next year, and ruled that the legal marriage age for men and women should be recognized as 18 years.

Attorney General (AG), Prof Adelardus Kilangi told the 'Daily News' over the phone that the government is meditating on how to handle the matter, as disparity in the minimum age of marriage is a compromise to accommodate customary, traditional and religious values on marriage.

Article 13 of the Tanzanian Constitution states that, "all persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination, to protection and equality before the law."

Tanzania has committed to eliminate child, early and forced marriage by 2030, in line with target 5.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals. The country also co-sponsored the 2013 and 2014 UN General Assembly resolutions on child, early and forced marriage, and signed a joint statement at the 2014 Human Rights Council, calling for a resolution on child marriage.

It also ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1991, which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) in 1985, which obligates states to ensure free and full consent to marriage.

In 2007, Tanzania ratified the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, which includes an Article related to equal and free consent in marriage.

In 2003 Tanzania ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, including Article 21 regarding the prohibition of child marriage. Tanzania is one of 20 countries which has committed to ending child marriage by the end of 2020 under the Ministerial Commitment on comprehensive sexuality education and sexual and reproductive health services for adolescents and young people in Eastern and Southern Africa.

At the Girl Summit in July 2014, the government of Tanzania signed a charter committing to end child marriage by 2020. During its 2016 Universal Periodic Review, Tanzania supported recommendations to accelerate efforts to end child marriage.

It is thus important for the government to amend the marriage law and necessary reform policies so that girls in Tanzania are able to enjoy their right to education and freedom from abuse of child marriages.

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