Gender and children’s rights activists in Tanzania scored a major victory last week after the country's Court of Appeal quashed the government’s appeal against a 2016 High Court ruling that raised the minimum age for marriage from 15 to 18 for girls.
The ruling makes early child marriages illegal in a country that allowed the practice despite being signatories to numerous international treaties.
Tanzania has ratified the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, and Convention of the Rights of the Child.
A panel of three appellate court judges upheld the 2016 High Court ruling banning marrying of girls aged under 18 under any circumstances, and directed that the new age of consent be made into law within a year.
The Court of Appeal’s ruling all but repeals the 1971 Marriage Act, which had the minimum marriage age for girls at 14—if a court was satisfied that special, albeit unspecified, circumstances existed—and 15 with parental consent and 18 for boys.
Rebecca Gyumi of the Msichana Initiative girls rights advocacy group was the lead lobbyist and thanked the judges for “being brave and standing up for what is right in protecting children's rights as a whole.”
She filed the original case challenging the constitutionality of child marriage in Tanzania and called for girls to be given equal protection with boys under the law. The High Court ruled in her favour in 2016, ordering that the legal marriage age be raised to 18 years for both girls and boys.
However, the government through the Attorney-General appealed the High Court ruling, claiming that the disparity in the minimum age of marriage for the two genders was “a compromise to accommodate customary, traditional and religious values on marriage.”
Supporters of Ms Gyumi's case had also argued that the 1971 Marriage Act contravened the Law of the Child Act and violated girls' rights to a proper education.
“This was a victory not only for young girls but Tanzanians in general,” said Ann Sangai of the Tanzania Gender Networking Programme, which advocates for girls and women's rights.
Jean Paul Murunga, the programme officer for the End Harmful Practices at Equality Now organisation, said they are ready to work with other organisations as well as the government to implement reforms and policy changes of the new ruling.
“We will continue to push for amendments to sections 13 and 17 of the Marriage Act so that the minimum age of marriage is set at 18 with no exception,” Mr Murunga said.
Over 30 per cent of girls in Tanzania get married before their 18th birthday and five per cent before the age of 15, placing the country 11 in number of child brides worldwide, according to Unicef.
In 2010, child marriage rates were estimated to be at 59 per cent in Shinyanga region, 58 per cent in Tabora, and 55 per cent in Mara region, according to Unicef data.
In some northern rural areas on the border with Kenya, some girls were reportedly married as young as 11. Rates are lowest in Iringa and Dar es Salaam.
Major drivers of early child marriage in Tanzania include family honour, poverty, low levels of education, refugee displacement and the practice of female genital mutilation, which is used as a rite of passage into adulthood.
The other East African Community member states have 18 years as the age of consent for marriage.