Prof. Marjorie Mbilinyi: What arethe alternatives to early marriage for young girls in Tanzania?

Tanzania has the shameful distinction of having one of the highest child marriage rates in the world. According to the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey, two out of every three girls in Tanzania is married before 18 years.

There is a growing campaign to stop child marriage in Tanzania and elsewhere in Africa, led by local, national, regional and global organisations. While fully endorsing the stated objectives of the campaign, I believe that more attention is needed on the contextual factors that sustain child marriage.

Girl child marriage is now illegal

On July 8, 2016 the High Court of Tanzania took a giant step forward by declaring that early marriage is illegal, that it violates the Constitution, and that anyone married at a younger age than 18 years is breaking the law.

The case was brought to the High Court by a Tanzanian NGO, Msichana Initiative, which works closely with the Girls Not Brides alliance. This follows the earlier launching of the government's 'Child Marriage Free Zone' national campaign to end child marriage on August 25, 2014, with support from UNFPA, Graca Machel Trust, Tamwa and the Children's Dignity Forum. Moreover, both the Central and Local Government have adopted punitive measures to stop child marriage, including the recent decision to imprison men who impregnate underage schoolgirls for 30 years.

The main arguments for banning child marriage are straight forward, combining human and women's rights issues, the removal of early pregnancy risks (including death in childbirth, fistula, and injury), enhancement of female education enrolment and reduction of the high population growth rate. The mainstream assumption is that child brides are married without choice; therefore banning child marriage is necessarily and obviously in their interests. The driving factors are reportedly poverty, patriarchal traditions and customs, and gender inequality, with rural and poor girls being the most vulnerable. But why are poor and rural girls more "vulnerable" to child marriage than wealthy and urban girls? And what are their alternatives?

Structural factors

There is wide regional variation in child marriage on the mainland, even among "rural" regions - more than half of girls are married in Shinyanga (59 per cent), Tabora (58 per cent), Mara (55 per cent), Dodoma (51 per cent), compared to less than a third in Tanga (29 per cent), Arusha (27 per cent), Kilimanjaro (27 per cent), Kigoma (26 per cent), Dar es Salaam (19 per cent), and Iringa (8 per cent). Why the differences?

Will the ban on child marriage give all girls everywhere equal access to quality education? According to research evidence, a large number of girls and boys do not perform well in school, based on Standard VII Examination results as well as tests of student competency in reading, writing and numeracy by Uwezo, HakiElimu and other organisations. Rural poor children have high failure rates in both kinds of measurement and are least likely to be selected for secondary and high education. Moreover, there is a high level of sexual and other abuse of girls in many primary and secondary schools, as well as male bias in and out of the classroom and an unfriendly school environment for girls - making school an unattractive if not dangerous place to be.

Third, many girls are working. According to the recent Mainland Tanzania Child Labour Survey 2014, nearly 60 per cent of children aged 5-17 were working, and probably not in school. Some 84.2 per cent of these working children were girls working in vulnerable environments; and only 15.8 per cent were domestic workers. They may not be married although it is likely that many are already mothers of one or two children. Many of these children are rural; their families are impoverished without adequate public programmes to help sustain small-scale family agriculture.

Under present circumstances, a young rural girl may rationally decide that it is in her own best interests to get married. She escapes the drudgery of unpaid work as a child for a more powerful position as a wife [even a junior wife] and mother; escapes the boredom, oppression and mediocrity of public schooling; gets more access to independent sources of income (cash and kind) however contentious it may be; and more mobility in many if not all areas. Ending Girl Marriage campaigns need to call for a more inclusive, equitable and just development strategy, which provides girls with a reason not to marry - namely quality education, and dignified employment and sustainable livelihoods.
  • By Prof Marjorie Mbilinyi