Over the past several years, Tanzania has cracked down on child marriage. Recently, the government announced that marrying a girl under 18 could be punishable by 30 years in prison. At first glance, this seemed like a huge victory, but a closer look shows that the measure has glaring loopholes.

This is a pattern in Tanzania — seemingly bold action to stop child marriage that turns out to be a small step in the right direction.

Child marriage is a problem that affects up to 40% of girls under the age of 18 in the country. For the millions of girls in or around adolescence, it’s an urgent problem. But because of its prevalence, the government has felt compelled to take a gradual approach. If it came down too abruptly on child marriage, the thinking goes, then there could be upheaval.

Read more: You’ll now get 30 years in prison if you marry a child in Tanzania

So the government is trying to phase the practice out in ways other than strict laws.

At the top of the list is education — investment in education for girls, policies that encourage and enforce attendance, and advocacy campaigns in communities that explain the harms of child marriage.

A new foundation

Girls who complete a secondary education are much more likely to avoid child marriage and are better equipped to effectively navigate adulthood.

Read more: Child Marriage: Everything You Need to Know

But teenage girls who are married off face many barriers to staying in and resuming their educations.

Their new husbands often treat them as property and insist on controlling every aspect of their lives. Even if a girl wanted to go back to school, the husband may veto her wish.

Or a married child could spend all her day doing domestic chores and working for her new family, leaving no time for an education.

School fees could be too high for some families and sometimes girls may have to work to raise money for their male peers to attend. Other times, schools have inadequate resources for girls. In fact, a major cause of girls dropping out of school is a lack of safe toilets.

A newly married girl could also have to move to a new location, putting her out of a school’s range.

Finally, a child bride could get pregnant, which is extremely risky at such a young age. A girl who gets pregnant before her body is fully developed faces grave health risks and is far more likely to die during childbirth. Plus, once a child is born, the girl’s hopes of returning to school are all but dashed.  

But the government’s new focus on education helps to address this web of problems.

Across Sub-Saharan Africa, just 52% of children are enrolled in school, the lowest rate of any region in the world.

Last January, the Tanzanian government passed a measure to make primary and secondary education free for all kids.

By eliminating school fees for 11 years of schooling, education became vastly more accessible to many families. Since girls are far more likely to be pulled from school because of a lack of money than boys, this disproportionately helps girls.

Read more: Educating girls is the key to ending poverty

There are now enforcement measures in place to deter parents from pulling their children from school.

“Causing a child to drop out from school for any reason is a criminal offense because you affect his fundamental right of being educated,” said George Masaju, Tanzania’s attorney general, at a graduation ceremony at Feza School in Dar es Salaam.

The next step is creating systems that protect and guide girls as they go through school.

A model school

One school that’s serving as a model in Tanzania is the Memkwa school.

Memkwa focuses on educating girls and advocating for them within communities, especially to community leaders.

One of its primary goals is bringing child brides back into the classroom — even after they have kids themselves. By providing support and resources to child brides, the school is able to overcome resistance and social stigma and get girls back on track toward fulfilling their potential.

This benefits society as a whole and Memkwa makes sure this message is well-known.

CARE profiled a few of the girls in the video below:

Stephanie dropped out of school when she became pregnant. With Memkwa’s support she was able to re-enroll to complete primary school and then go onto secondary school.

The new support doesn’t mean it’s been easy. She often doubts whether staying in school is the right thing because she has two young children at home.

But she knows that by continuing she’s improving the future for her children. Eventually, she wants to start a business.

And it helps that the community supports her.

“The day I passed the exam,” she said. “The community praised me, especially the community leaders!”

Collectively, efforts like Memkwa are making a difference. But they still need the backbone of strong law enforcement, which is why Global Citizen is calling on the president to definitively raise the age of child marriage to 18.

Child marriage shouldn’t be a concern of any girl and all communities are better off without it.


Defeat Poverty

How Education Is Ending Child Marriage in Tanzania

By Joe McCarthy