LAST week, The Gambia and Tanzania banned child marriage, with tough penalties for those who breach the rulings. Gambia’s President Yayha Jammeh announced that anyone marrying a girl below 18 would be jailed for up to 20 years.
It appears that the law was already on the statute books, but the president’s decree has sent a signal for immediate implementation.
In Tanzania, the High Court imposed a landmark ruling making it illegal for girls or boys younger than 18 to marry. The court ruled unconstitutional sections 13 and 17 of the Tanzania Law of Marriage Act, which allow girls to marry at age 15 with parental permission and at age 14 with the permission of a court.
Some 30% of underage girls are married in The Gambia, while in Tanzania the rate is 37%, according to data from UNFPA.
With the ruling, Tanzania exits the small league of African nations that still allow under-18s (mostly girls) to marry.
Human Rights Watch has documented the direct, life-long consequences of child marriage in Tanzania, and by extension, in Africa. Girls face serious reproductive health problems resulting from becoming pregnant as teens, before their bodies have fully matured.
They also face a heightened risk of violence, including marital rape and domestic violence, because they are in a dependent, powerless position in the marital set-up, unable to negotiate.
MARRIAGE AS SHAME PREVENTION
Girls told Human Rights Watch that their families forced them to marry so they could get bride price payments, because they did not value their daughters’ education, and because the girls were pregnant or their families feared that they would become pregnant and bring disrespect to the family.
Child marriage severely curtails girls’ access to education because schools and families prevent married girls from attending class – because they now have “family responsibilities”.
School officials are allowed to expel pregnant girls, and they often do, to prevent the girls being a “bad influence” on others. In Tanzania in particular, to get enrolled into another school, a student has to have a letter of recommendation from his/her previous school.
School officials rarely give these letters in the case of pregnancy-related expulsions, as government regulations state pregnant girls have committed an “offense against morality”.
This means that pregnant adolescent girls expelled from or forced to drop out of school are permanently excluded from government schools. In a country where private options are few and expensive, getting pregnant is almost always the end of a girl’s formal schooling, as detailed in this report by the Centre for Reproductive Rights.
That means that in most cases, getting married is the only option available to pregnant girls – they are deliberately forced out of the school system, effectively forever.
Draconian regulations like these are the reason why a whopping 90% of pregnant 15-19-year-olds in Africa are actually married or living with a partner, unlike in the West where teenage pregnancies almost always occur outside marriage, data from UNFPA shows.