Ending Child Marriage in Tanzania: Pursuing the distant but non-elusive dream

Wednesday 18 December 2019


Tanzania has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world – almost two out of five girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday.  Tanzania Demographic and Healthy Survey (2015) shows that 31% of women between 20-24 years were married when they were under 18 years. Child marriage is driven by a number of factors including income poverty, social norms, adolescent fertility and weak legal and policy frameworks.  Girls who marry early are more likely to experience domestic and sexual violence, reduced level of sexual and reproductive health and lower levels of education.  Eliminating Child Marriage is one of the targets for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

 Since 2016, Ending Child Marriage has been the primary focus of Save the Children Tanzania Country Office Every Last Child Campaign.  Through concerted program interventions and robust advocacy campaigning, significant milestones have been realized on the legal aspects.  Through SIDA funded projects (Child Rights Governance/Child Protection and Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights) the CO has focused on increasing awareness and understanding of general public as well as key policy actors especially MPs, the media and donors on the negative, immediate and long-term impacts of child marriage.

 Our Campaign efforts in pursuit of the distant but non elusive dream to end child marriage is traceable to April 2016 when the Government of Tanzania included ending child marriage and amendment to the Law of Marriage Act among the key child protection and child rights priorities during the Universal Peer Review (UPR) of the Human Rights Council.  In order to effectively and efficiently influence the necessary policy and legislative changes in a complicated and sometimes sensitive political context, Save the Children Tanzania joined the Tanzania Ending Child Marriage Network (TECM) in May 2016.    Working with other partners and the government (MoHCDGEC), we embarked on development of the National Plan of Action (NPA) to end Violence Against Children and Women (VAW and VAC) in the same year. The Country Office was part of the NPA legal group which was tasked with amending/changing legislation on Child Marriage and this was in line with our main Campaign objective.  

 Following the petition to challenge constitutionality of Article 13 and 17 of the Law of the Marriage Act submitted by Rebeca Gyumi, young Tanzanian activist and founder of the Msichana Initiative, the High Court issued a landmark ruling declaring the law unconstitutional and ordered the government to raise the age of marriage to 18 years for both boys and girls.  This ruling was a major milestone for many girls in Tanzania who were robbed of the opportunity to make important life choices like who and when to marry like Neema* and with lasting scars as she reestablishes her life.

 Neema’s* story is one of suffering and endurance; of rights denied and life choicesimposed. She stood up and told of how child marriage is a part of her everyday reality and the consequences that being married at 16 has had on her life. Forced to marry aman more than 20 years older than her, Neema struggled to fight for her rights, finding  that even those closest to her, including her sister, refused to support her- commanding   her to obey their decision and not embarrass the family. Now pregnant, Neema was     beaten daily by her husband until, unable to endure the pain and humiliation any further,she ran away. Luckily Neema found herself at a centre which gave her shelter and a safe place for   both herself and her child.

 Unfortunately, this ruling was legally challenged and an appeal lodged by the Attorney General in September 2017 on contestable grounds that the lower minimum age for marriage served to protect girls who became pregnant out of wedlock.  As a key member of the TECMN, the Country Office intensified campaign messaging, direct engagement with key policy actors like Members of Parliament (MPs) and through the network, privately advocated to ensure the law was amended and have the ruling stay. We followed Rebeca Gyumi’s case and participated and/or contributed to various meetings including litigation surgery.In order to ensure involvement of some of the key ending child marriage champions in the process we got in touch with AU Goodwill Ambassador on Ending Child Marriage Hon.  Gumbonzvanda   Nyaradzayi who visited Tanzania and who promised to support the ending child marriage case from the AU angle. 

 After a protracted legal process, the Supreme Court of Appeal, Tanzania’s highest court, upheld the landmark 2016 ruling in October 23rd 2019.  While we welcome this brave action that also restores trust in judicial independence in Tanzania, we know that the law itself is not adequate to protect Neema and many other girls and young mothers as aptly noted by the Country Director,

“This landmark ruling is a great day for children in Tanzania who can now be free to achieve their rights to survive, learn and be protected. This has been a huge team effort led by the inspirational Rebecca Gyumi and my heartfelt congratulations goes to her as well as to our Tanzania staff who have tirelessly been working to ensure that Children of Tanzania can attain their basic rights. This is not the end of our movement to advocate for ending child marriage but rather a great start, as we move forward our focus will still be to create awareness at the community level and ensure that parents/guardians understand how child marriage endangers the emotional and physical wellbeing of girls by prematurely forcing them into sexual activities and exposing them to systemic sexual violence”, Peter Walsh, Save the Children Tanzania Country Director