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High Court judgment in Tanzania rules age of marriage laws discriminatory and unconstitutional

Rebeca Gyumi, Founder of the Msichana Initiative who campaigned for the laws to change | Photo credit: Msichana Initiative

In a landmark decision, the High Court of Tanzania ruled last week that the Law of Marriages Act must be revised to eliminate inequality between the minimum age of marriages for boys and for girls.

The current Act allows girls to marry at the age of fourteen with the consent of the court, and from the age of fifteen with the consent of their parents. At present, 37% of girls in Tanzania are married before the age of 18.

Nyasha Chingore, a lawyer at the Southern African Litigation Centre (SALC), responded to the High Court’s decision:

“The High Court judgment is a significant victory for the rights of children in Tanzania… this ruling sends a clear message neither religion nor custom can be used as an excuse to violate childrens’ rights.”

The precedent-setting case was launched by Rebeca Gyumi, who is the director and founder of the Msichana Initiative. The organisation advocates for the rights of women and girls, claiming that the persistence of child marriage is a threat to an already vulnerable group in society:

“Allowing parents to marry off their daughters before they are eighteen hinders girls’ ability to finish their education. This prevents girls from fully expressing themselves in other spheres of life.”

The Court pointed out that while the Law of Marriages Act may have been enacted with good intentions in 1971, this intention is no longer relevant because the effect of the Act now is to discriminate against girls by depriving them of opportunities that are vital for all citizens. Whilst boys are allowed to enjoy their teenage years, parents can force girls to grow up long before they are ready.

Tightening child marriage laws

The Court’s ruling comes after the introduction of tougher punishment – up to 30 years in prison – for men who marry schoolgirls or get them pregnant. While important, amending child marriage laws and sending perpetrators to jail alone are not enough to end child marriage.

It is essential to empower girls, to protect their rights and provide meaningful alternatives to marriage that are valued by communities, such as education. Instead of stigmatising local communities, we must continue working with them to try to change attitudes towards child marriage and produce lasting change.

Update: September 2017

The Attorney General of Tanzania has appealed the High Court’s decision to make marriage before the age of 18 illegal in the country.

Our Twitter Q&A with Rebeca!

Girls Not Brides hosted a Q&A with Rebeca Gyumi, founder of Msichana Initiative, on Friday 22 July, from 12-1:30 pm (East Africa Time).