Opinion: An activist's big dreams for girls in Tanzania

Girls hang out at a village market in Kilosa, Tanzania. Photo by: Mitchell Maher / International Food Policy Institute / CC BY-NC-ND

Six months ago, in Tanzania, a 15-year-old girl could be married to a 50-year-old man and there would be no consequences, for the man anyway. For the girl, the consequences would be calamitous: The marriage would likely result in her leaving school, becoming pregnant and being at risk of health problems and domestic violence.

Unfortunately, this is the fate of 37 percent of Tanzanian girls due to deep-rooted traditions, as well as economic and religious factors that render girls second class citizens. Most shockingly, however, until very recently these child marriages were also sanctioned by Tanzanian law, which set the legal age for marriage for girls as young as 14 with parental consent.

Imagine your life at 14, brimming with anticipation and perhaps a little angst about things to come. A 14-year-old is nowhere near ready for marriage, pregnancy or adulthood. The early marriage of a girl immediately limits her potential and perpetuates cycles of poverty, oppression and inequality. If we eradicate child marriage, young girls will be accorded a chance to be so much more than wives and mothers. When girls are empowered, educated and free to make their own informed choices, society will flourish abundantly. This will never happen if girls continue to be married and drop out of school at 14. A law that permits this injustice in my own country was a law I could not accept.

Changing the law: An essential first step

So, in January 2016 against this backdrop of tradition and discriminatory legislation, I embarked on a mission to change the law and empower girls in Tanzania through the Msichana Initiative. Alongside its community engagement programs, the initiative was dedicated to petitioning the government to change The Law of Marriages Act 1971, which was outdated and explicitly discriminated against girls. Others had tried to change it before, but by petitioning directly to the High Court the issue became a matter of constitutional affairs and change was enacted faster.

The judgement took over six months and faced much resistance along the way. I personally confronted many challenges while lobbying members of the High Court particularly from elderly members of communities and parents who feared for their daughters’ unmarried futures. I faced these fears with fact. I worked to spread awareness about how much better off girls are when they finish their education, pursue careers and futures of their choosing and marry when they are mature and willing to do so.

Finally, this July, sections 13 and 17 of the Marriage Act were ruled unconstitutional and the legal age of marriage for girls is now 18 — the same age for boys and international human rights recommendation. This ruling comes in tandem with stronger punishments for child marriage perpetrators. I hope that punitive measures will not be necessary but the change in the law has created the culpability to ensure that communities understand that the government is serious about ending child marriage.

A change in the law is undeniable progress but not a time for complacency: this is only the first step towards gender and marital equality in Tanzania.

Changing social norms: How to continue success

Social norms do not change overnight. Change is a process and looking forward, the change in the law must be followed by community-led, implementation and enforcement. That’s why this week, the Mschiana Initiative is kicking off a community engagement program in Dodoma, a province of Tanzania with highest incidences of child marriage. This work will include the launch of the “girl club” roadshow to bring girls together to discuss their rights and the importance of staying in school. I will also undertake radio station interviews and workshops with parents to explain the change in the law and the dangers of child marriage framed as a criminal offence.

The legal fight elevated a discussion about child marriage in the media. We even saw newspaper comics and radio station covering the debate, which meant the conversation reached people in rural Tanzania. If we want to change decades of tradition, engaging and educating at this grass-roots level is fundamental.

At the same time, however, grass-roots community-engagement is often poorly facilitated and funded. For communities to act on this law we need funding and capacity building to effectively change attitudes about the place of a girl in society. It is crucial that this funding and capacity building are well-targeted at the grass-roots level.

Grass-roots organizations are ultimately the ones working with girls affected by child marriage and local communities, but they often lack the capacity to monitor their own impact, share lessons learnt, or apply for much needed funding. This is where international and national actors can support community-level implementation.

I also firmly believe in the power of role models: My own mother inspired me to prioritize my education and has supported me in my journey to advocate for others girl’s education. She did not marry me off at a young age and invested in both my brother’s and my education equally. I have every intention of doing the same if I have children. This is how change happens in the smallest unit of society: family. Male role models are also important to mobilize a shift in patriarchal attitudes, this is not a fight women can win alone.

On behalf of all Tanzanian girls, and girls worldwide, I am thrilled to have been able to make a change in my country. Nevertheless, the fight to end child marriage has really only just begun. Efforts to empower women and girls must be integrated into the very fabric of society at every level. We are more than wives and mothers. Unlocking girls potential will be better for everyone. As I always say, “A girl with a dream is fire” — girls should aspire to have a career, and that is possible through getting an education.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Rebeca Gyumi

    Rebeca Gyumi, is the founder and executive director of the Msichiana Initiative, an organization which aims to empower girls through education in Tanzania and stop child marriages. Rebeca has, this year, successfully petitioned the High Court of Tanzania to outlaw child marriage and she is now continuing her work to implement this change at the community level throughout Tanzania.