Co-Written with Jasminka Milovanovic, Senior Advocacy and Campaign Manager
On the 11th of October, in the northern city of Shinyanga, Tanzania, local political figures and key stake-holders gathered for what was meant to be a typically African advocacy event, hosted by Save the Children. However, this International Day of the Girl Child event was to be of a different calibre as suddenly, amidst the orderly speeches and high-profile addresses, a humble girl stood up and addressed the public to tell her story. A story which was to alter people’s views and perspectives on the reality of child marriage in Tanzania and which demonstrates the prominence with which such topics are becoming a norm of public discourse in the country.
Neema’s* story is one of suffering and endurance; of rights denied and life choices imposed. She stood up and told of how child marriage is a part of her everyday reality and the consequences that being married a 16 has had on her life. Forced to marry a man more than 20 years older than her, Neema struggled to fight for her rights, finding that even those closest to her, including her sister, refused to support her- commanding her to obey their decision and not embarrass the family. Now pregnant, Neema was beaten daily by her husband until, unable to endure the pain and humiliation any further, she ran away.
Luckily Neema found herself at a centre which gave her shelter and a safe place for both herself and her child. Seeing other girls and young women like her, who had been forced to flee their homes and abusive husbands, she began to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Tanzania has one of the highest child marriage rates in the world with an adolescent fertility rate (that is, the number of births per 1,000 girls aged 15-19) which is the highest globally. Child marriage occurs more frequently among girls who are the least educated, poorest and living in rural areas. Neema’s story presented key stakeholders with an eye-opening snapshot of reality- not just a tale read in a report in an office, but a real-life, poignant account of the situation child brides are faced with in Tanzania today.
Moreover, the power of youth advocacy is demonstrated in this snapshot. Although child marriage rates in Tanzania have decreased in recent years, they remain unacceptably high. Save the Children has been lobbying parliamentarians to change the marriage act, advocating for legislative change. Most significantly, on the 8th of July 2016, the Tanzanian High Court outlawed the marriage act as not only discriminatory but also unconstitutional, allowing girls to be married at the age of 14 with the consent of the court and 15 with the consent of parents. Even though this achievement presented a significant win for the girls of Tanzania, very soon after that the Attorney General appealed against the High Court, a ruling that outlaws the marriage of children below the age of 18.
Save the Children- who is a member of the Tanzania Ending Child Marriage Network- as a civil society coalition will continue to mobilise girls, youths and other community organisations so as to ensure that, despite the appeal, the change is made, implemented and sustained so that no girl is subjected to the suffering Neema had to endure. In order to secure high level political commitment from the Tanzanian government Save the Children will lobby the key political figures, including parliamentarians, asking them to give their voice to ending child marriage and guarantee the protection of child rights for all children in Tanzania.
* indicates where names have been changed for protection purposes.