How to Accidentally End Child Marriage in Tanzania

In a country where almost two in every five girls are married before they turn 18, activist Rebecca Gyumi was hoping only for clarity on the law when she petitioned the Tanzanian high court. Instead, she got a total ban and a victory for child rights.

Written by Flora Bagenal Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Students at the Kiembe Samaki Teacher Training School in Zanzibar, Tanzania, July 14, 2005. In a landmark decision, the country's high court recently banned marriage for anyone under the age of 18. AP/Charles Dharapak

Tanzania currently has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the world, with close to two in every five girls marrying before they are 18. The law allows girls to marry as young as 14 with the consent of the court, and at 15 with the consent of their parents.

But in a landmark decision, the High Court of Tanzania ruled earlier this month that the Law of Marriages Act must be revised to eliminate the inequality between the minimum age of marriages for boys and girls. That makes it illegal for a girl to get married before the age of 18. The court also ruled that parents and other community members who facilitate child marriage could be liable to up to 30 years in prison.

The ruling comes as a happy surprise to Rebecca Gyumi, a lawyer and child rights campaigner who has spent years fighting for a ban on child marriage. In January, she submitted a petition to the court asking for a “clarification” of the child marriage laws in the hope it would give campaigners a solid place to start from. She never imagined the court would go so far as to ban the practice completely.

Since the ruling, Gyumi has been inundated with messages of support and a few messages of criticism from Tanzanians. Women & Girls Hub spoke with her about her victory for child rights and how the hard work is still to come.

Women & Girls Hub: How did you feel when the landmark ruling came through?

Rebecca Gyumi: I was very excited and a bit in disbelief at the same time. When I filed the petition in January, I was 100 percent sure we would not win. What I always thought was somehow this petition would force the government to clarify their position on the issue. It was supposed to be a start, so we had a record [of where the court stands on the issue]. But in the end, they came down in our favor. It just made me so happy the high court made such a bold decision to protect children – especially girls – in my country.

Women & Girls Hub: What has been the response to the ruling within communities you work with and in the local media?

Gyumi: We have received mixed reactions, to be honest. We have had some criticism from people who feel the decision is contravening their cultural and religious beliefs, especially for girls who are not in school. Some people believe a good way to protect them is to marry them off. But most people applaud the steps taken to safeguard girls in Tanzania. We take all responses positively, even the few ones who seem to be angry about it, because they prove that winning the case alone is not going to end child marriage. We also have to continue educating the community on the effects of marrying girls off early.

Women & Girls Hub: What is needed to make sure the law is followed? How easy will it be to bring about change?

Gyumi: This landmark decision from the high court is not the end of our campaign to end child marriage – it is the beginning. There is still a lot of work to be done. Everyone from law enforcers and lawmakers to members of the community should be involved in making sure the law is implemented. Most importantly, girls should be educated and empowered to realize their full potential. We need girls to know they can be more than just wives and mothers but also doctors, lawyers, artists and designers. All of this requires them to stay in school and study. The emphasis needs to be on the importance of education and the power it has in transforming girls’ lives.

Women & Girls Hub: Why is child marriage practiced in Tanzania? And why is it so damaging?

Gyumi: There are many drivers of child marriage in Tanzania. One of the biggest hurdles is the way girls are perceived. In regions like Shinyanga, Mara and Dodoma, where incidents of child marriage are higher, they consider a girl child as someone who is going to be married off one day and so they think it’s not important to invest in her education. There are also financial considerations. If a daughter is married off, the family get more cows or money as a dowry. Many see their girls as a way to lift the family out of poverty. Another issue is initiation rites like female genital mutilation. When a girl has passed through these rituals, she is considered ready for a husband, which can often mean girls marrying at a very young age.

Women & Girls Hub: What message do you have for other activists challenging harmful traditions that are deeply entrenched in society?

Gyumi: Stay true to your cause. Sometimes it might seem like you are fighting a losing battle, but don’t lose hope. Commitment and dedication are your best tools to reach a desirable outcome.

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