DAR ES SALAAM, TANZANIA—Upendo Lotuma made a lucky escape. If her father had had his way, she would have been married off at the age of 15. But Ms. Lotuma had other plans. When she was told back in 2009 that she was to marry her 32-year old neighbor, Ms. Lotuma—who adored school—decided to run away from her home in a Masai village in north central Tanzania. Without knowing either Swahili or English she, along with another school friend who was also to be married, boarded a bus for Arusha wearing her school uniform. “I thought to myself ‘I do not know where I am going and if I am going to die, I will die,” said Ms. Lotuma, sitting in an outdoor café in Dar Es Salaam. “’But I am not going to marry that man.’” After spending a number of weeks in a juvenile center, she and her school friend were eventually sponsored by a few locals to attend the Notre Dame Secondary School in Arusha, where she later graduated. After spending two additional years studying pharmacology, she now works as a pharmacist’s assistant in Dar.
While Ms. Lotuma’s story has a happy ending—she hopes to save enough money to go to nursing school—there are thousands of other young women in Tanzania who have a sadder fate. While the East African country does not have the highest rate of child marriage in the world—that dubious honor is held by Niger where three in four girls are married before their 18th birthday—the numbers in the country are still bleak, with four out of 10 girls married before they turn 18. A National Action Plan on the Prevention and Eradication of Violence against Women and Children (2001-2015) noted that the Law of Marriage Act of 1971 needed to be amended (that law sets the age of marriage for boys at 18 but for girls it is 15 with parental consent or 14 with permission of a court). So there was a glimmer of hope in July after the Tanzanian High Court ruled in favor of a case filed by the Msichana Initiative. That NGO advocates for girls’ education in the country and they argued that the Marriage Act was unconstitutional because not only was it discriminatory against girls but it also violated girls’ access to education.
However soon after the groundbreaking decision, the government appealed the ruling and it has now been sent to the appellate court. That was six months ago. So what’s taking so long to make a decision? “From our own view and observation as activists, it seems that the issue of the age of marriage touches various beliefs including religious, traditional or social norms,” Judith Odunga, the Tanzanian coordinator for Women in Law and Development in Africa (WiLDAF), wrote in an email interview. “As such there is a possibility that the government fears to disappoint its future voters.”
As to when the court will make a ruling is anyone’s guess says the Msichana Initiative’s founder Rebecca Gyumi. “I’m not sure about the exact time [the] appeal process will take, it might be few months or few years,” she says. “We can’t educate communities about refraining from harmful practices while the main piece that governs marital affairs in our country allows children to get married. It’s a huge contradiction.”
Tanzania, of course, is not unique in having confusing legislation when it comes to child marriage. UNICEF reports that globally 700 million women and girls were married before 18, with 125 million of them in Africa. “There are so many countries that have laws on the books but they either have lots of loopholes or they are really hard to implement,” says Lakshmi Sundaram, the global coordinator for the NGO Girls Not Brides. “So there is a huge amount of education of the police and the judiciary that needs to be done.” And issues around implementation of these laws can prove difficult. In India, for example, 2007’s Prohibition of Child Marriage Act stipulates that only girls 18 and older can get married; however the country has the highest number of child brides in the world, with an estimated 47% of girls married before they reach 18.
“A law itself cannot end child marriage,” says Agnes Odhiambo, Human Rights Watch’s east Africa researcher on women’s rights who is based in Nairobi. “What is needed is a comprehensive approach. You do need legal reform because children need protections by law but you also need to strengthen access to education for girls but also the quality of that education.”
She adds that community education is integral for stopping child marriage. “Empowering communities to be economically strong is a key element for ending child marriage,” she says. “Some people will say ‘You can tell me that child marriage is wrong but as long as my seven children are sleeping hungry and I can see this one daughter, if she gets married, means I can get two cows. You are not going to convince me that not letting her get married is the best option.’”
But globally there are a number of local NGOs and community-based programs that are trying to tackle those concerns head on. In Morocco, Fondation YTTO, which is focused on ending gender-based violence, travels by caravan to remote villages in the Atlas Mountains to encourage families to educate their girls and to not have them get married. Tostan, which works in six West African countries including Mali and Senegal, have a Community Empowerment Program that is focused on teaching villagers in remote areas about their human rights, which includes keeping girls in school.
In Malawi—where one in two girls are married before 18 and where in 2015 the country amended their laws so that the legal age of marriage is now 18—activist Theresa Kachindamoto, a local chief, goes village to village getting chiefs to end child marriage in their villages. Meanwhile in Zimbabwe, the marriage laws were changed last year when two young brides challenged the government over its Marriage Act, saying the law discriminated against girls by setting the minimum age to marry at 16 while it was 18 for boys.
As for Ms. Lotuma, when after four years she finally returned for a visit to her village of Engrutoto, her father was so pleased that she was educated that he told her he would never try to force her to get married again. “Education is the key to life,” she said, sipping herbal tea. “Now when I go home, my nieces and nephews say ‘We want to go to school and be like auntie.’”
Photos: Shutterstock: 1) Maasai girls, Tanzania ; 2) Turkana girl, Kenya; 3) Cambodian girls