Two years ago, I was on my way to Dodoma from Tabora. The coaster was packed. Full of people and full of baggage. Yet, we stopped again to pick up even more people, about five people got in, two of them were ladies, one was a girl, around 12－14 years old, carrying a few months old baby on her back, accompanied by a man in his late 30s. As she turned the child and breastfed, that’s when I knew it was her baby. She was composed and shy. We locked eyes and I looked away through the window.
The rough road of Itigi shook everyone and everything. My chubby cheeks bounced and I smiled as I saw school kids waving at us as we passed by. I waved back. Trees, cattle, isolated houses and dust occupied my view. A commotion broke out on the bus. I tried to see the lady who was speaking but the packed bus wouldn’t let me.
“You marry off young girls, without a shame you dare to marry a young girl who could be your child,” the woman shouted. “You people are shameless.” I could hear the pain, frustration and disbelief in her shaky voice. She vented for minutes and I couldn’t figure out who she was talking to.
‘It is a law for a girl to be married’
The bus was now quiet, her voice echoing in our ears. Everyone looked at her. The man accompanying the young girl (turns out he was her husband) replied the lady: “It is a law for a girl to be married. You who take girls to school are misleading them.”
My heart dropped. My eyes popped out and I could feel my heart racing. I had read and seen clips of people speaking like that. But I had never witnessed it firsthand. He smiled as he spoke those words and kept repeating: “It is the law. A girl must get married.” He wasn’t even listening to the lady!
People murmured in the bus, some supporting the lady, some condoning the man. I probably froze in time. My big, brown eyes stared at that man in disbelief until I realized that he saw me staring, I turned away. The conductor announced the next stop and everyone got back to their business. I turned back to the window to enjoy the scenery.
My mind was occupied with what I just witnessed, minutes of the battle between ignorance and knowledge. I learnt something new. Maybe not something, rather a lot of things. The next few stops, the man and the girl got off the bus and I watched them as they disappeared in the dusty streets of that village.
The incident stuck with me. This was not some statistics being spoken on national TV. Not another point to get marks from a General Studies exam. Not a subtopic in a Civics textbook. It was reality. The reflection of many people’s beliefs. The plague we embrace. As I processed all this, I whispered to myself, “Well girl, now you know why they say you haven’t seen anything until you have travelled.”
Despite the efforts of the government, non-governmental organizations and other stakeholders in educating the general public and making necessary changes to protect children from child marriages and child pregnancy, we still have a huge work in front of us. To reach out to more remote rural communities, especially those who move from place to place.
In 2016, a court ruled that marriage under the age of 18 was illegal, and stated that sections 13 and 17 of the Marriage Act (with its exceptions) were unconstitutional. This remains among the best milestones to bring changes to Tanzanian society. We still need more manpower doing the groundwork, educating and enforcing changes.
The effects of child marriage and child pregnancy in a child’s health extend from denying the child right to education, increased risk of cervical cancer, pregnancy and labour complications, fistulas to mental health effects as this is part of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which predispose children to mental illness.
Child marriage and child pregnancy is denying children from experiencing their childhood. To go to school, to play, to make memories, to make mistakes, to learn and to follow their dreams. And as a society, we have contributed to this bogeyman continuing to terrorize our kids because we are protecting the enablers of this.
Child marriage in Tanzania
Tanzania remains one of the countries suffering from a high burden of child brides. According to a 2017 study by UNICEF, 31 per cent of girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday and 5 per cent are married before the age of 15. And as per 2010 data, the top three regions are Shinyanga, Tabora and Mara.
But why child marriage? Laws protecting girls are not enforced. Despite efforts, the groundwork is yet to yield the results needed. Younger wives are also considered more “obedient,” a euphemism for submissiveness. Their tender age and immaturity allow them to be easily manipulated. Power dynamics are not in their favour. They have little to no say on matters regarding their lives, especially reproductive health.
But the elephant in the room is poverty. Girls are viewed by their families as get-out-of poverty tickets. A week ago, three people including the father (of the deceased) were arrested for beating a 17-year-old girl to death after her refusal to get married in exchange for 13 cows. Three men proposed. The highest bidder was 13 cows. The girl’s life was lost. Her dreams were buried. For what? 13 cows? Mbaru. That was her name. Mbaru, we failed her.
There is a need to put more effort into these regions and educate the public on holding accountable those responsible for these acts. There is a need to use every resource we can: social media, mass media and if we can house visits to disseminate education against child marriages.
We need to establish a stronger system to report these incidences and make sure the perpetrators serve the right sentence to protect other children from them. The key is education. Literacy. Teach. Learn. Read. Repeat. All in all, child marriage is a multifactorial problem and thus needs a multisectoral approach to solve it.
Kuduishe Kisowile is a medical doctor and public health commentator based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. You can reach her through her e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @Kudu_ze_Kudu. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.