DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A landmark court ruling raising the legal age of marriage for girls in Tanzania to 18 will have little impact in ending child marriage if parents continue to marry off their daughters for bride price rather than educating them, campaigners said.
Tanzania’s High Court ruled last Friday that two sections of the 1971 Marriage Act that allow girls to marry at 15 with parental consent and 14 with the permission of a court, were unconstitutional.
The move came barely a week after the East African country, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage globally, made it an offense for people to marry primary and secondary-school age girls punishable by up to 30 years in prison.
“This ruling is a headway toward solving the problem, but it cannot by itself be the solution to child marriages,” said Hellen-Kijo Bisimba, a women’s rights campaigners and lawyer with the Legal and Human Rights Centre.
She said more needed to be done to tackle poverty and change the perception that girls are an economic burden on their families or a commodity to be traded for bride price - or dowry.
“Unless the general population is sufficiently enlightened to reject outdated traditional customs and the government puts in place effective strategies to alleviate poverty, we can hardly solve this problem,” Bisimba told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The High Court ruling was made in response to a petition filed earlier this year by Rebecca Gyumi, founder of Msichana Initiative, a local charity promoting girls’ rights.
The group argued that the Marriage Act violated girls’ rights to equality, dignity and access to education as granted by the constitution.
“The victory should be taken as a beginning of a fresh battle to ensure that child marriage becomes history in our country,” Gyumi wrote on her Facebook page.
DISCRIMINATORY AND UNFAIR
Campaign group Girls Not Brides says nearly two in five girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday.
It says the practice was particularly prevalent in rural areas where girls as young as 11 are married, although inaccurate birth and marriage records made it difficult to calculate exact figures of child marriage nationwide.
High Court Judge Ataula Munisi said the law was discriminatory and unfair because it allowed a girl of 14 to be married while males could only marry once they reach 18.
The court ordered the government to amend the Marriage Act within the next year and ruled that the legal marriage age for men and women should be recognized as 18 years.
Activists say ending child marriage hinges on raising more awareness about its impact on girls. Girl brides are often deprived of an education and face the increased risk of death or serious childbirth injuries if they have babies before their bodies are ready.
Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, and 21 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth, according to a 2015/16 survey by the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics.
In an editorial, leading independent newspaper, The Citizen, said parents endorsing marriage for their under-age daughters were “effectively giving away their offspring to a defiler”.
“Ignorant parents should not be allowed to marry off their children on the basis of backward customs or religious beliefs,” it said.
(Editing by Katie Nguyen. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)