Activists cautiously celebrated as Tanzania’s High Court ruled against child marriage in 2016. The landmark ruling raised the minimum age of marriage for girls in the country — previously 14 with a judge’s permission — to 18.
But instead of passing laws to support the ruling and creating law enforcement systems to put the policy in place, Attorney General George Masaju appealed the ruling a year later.
Since then, rights activists have remained determined to see the critical child marriage ban through, and have been fighting back against the appeal. Nonprofits, local organizations, and lawyers attended the attorney general’s appeal hearing at the Court of Appeals, the highest court, in Dar es Salaam on Wednesday to call for the ruling to be upheld.
“The government says [allowing child marriage] is meant to protect young girls who are not in school and who are active sexually so that they do not get pregnant while they are out of school and outside the institution of marriage,” Jean Paul Murunga, Equality Now's End Harmful Practices program officer, told Global Citizen.
“But the government’s argument that marriage is a form of protection for young girls really doesn’t make sense from a human rights point of view,” said Murunga, who attended the hearing.
Globally, 650 million girls and women alive today were married as children, according to UNICEF.
Child brides are often forced to leave school, bear children, and support families before they are ready. In fact, Tanzania briefly banned pregnant girls from attending school — married or not — but reached an agreement with the World Bank last November that required the government to allow pregnant girls back in schools.
More than 30% of girls are married before they turn 18 in Tanzania. The harmful practice of child marriage is perpetuated not only by cultural attitudes, but by poverty.
Poor families often marry their daughters to families they perceive to be more well off, Murunga said. Some families receive bride payments in exchange for their daughters, while others hope to marry their daughters off just to alleviate the financial strain on their family by reducing the number of mouths they have to feed.
Without an explicit child marriage ban, such treatment of girls will be difficult to stop.
“The biggest challenge to ending child marriage is this law because there are parents who are comfortable giving away their girls because they know there is no form of protection for them,” Murunga said. “So as long as the girl is 14 or older and the parent agrees for them to be married, then [sex with them] cannot be seen as rape.”
He also pointed to lack of educational opportunities as a contributing factor to Tanzania’s high marriage rate. Few families can afford to send their daughters to college or university and instead marry them off as soon as the finish school — even if they are under 18 — he explained.
The Court of Appeals is expected to hand down its decision within a month, and rights activists remain hopeful.
Tanzania’s constitution states that “all persons are equal before the law and are entitled, without any discrimination, to protection and equality before the law,” Murunga pointed out, adding that the United Nations treaties and African Union agreements that Tanzania has signed on to also call for the equal protection of girls and women.
“We hope that they will return with a positive judgement that will hold the government accountable and ask the government to initiate the necessarily legal reform process,” he said.
“If it is upheld, then we will go straight to the attorney general to begin to create a plan to implement the law. But for now we are keeping our fingers crossed and continuing to advocate, raising awareness, and supporting girls who are at risk as well as those who are already in child marriage.”