Fair Sex, Unfair Struggles

If you’ve been following the Faces2Hearts blog, you will have already seen a number of posts about child marriage on here.

Sadly this harmful custom was the invisible thread linking my travels across the region. Across East and Southern Africa, young boys and girls are forced to wed long before they are physically and psychologically ready. I say boys and girls, but it is nearly always the latter.

The project I want to talk to you about today was all about gender based violence against children. But every time I tried to dig deeper and truly understand the issue, I kept connecting with the same core – girls being forced to marry young.

This European Union (EU) funded project took me to Tanzania’s Shinyanga region. Spearheaded by Save the Children, it aims to set a healthier precedent for the local youth’s futures.

Why? Tanzania has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates and holds the undesirable record of highest adolescent fertility rate in the entire world. As of 2010, 22.8% of girls aged 15 to 19 had children or were pregnant. This isn’t particularly surprising news, given that only 12% of married girls in that age range are using modern contraceptive methods compared to 24% of those between the ages of 20 and 24.

Tanzanian women get married more than five years earlier, on average, than their male counterparts. More revealingly yet, they rarely get married to their contemporaries – unions with more than a decade-wide age gap are not rare.

The first site the Save The Children took me to was the Agape AIDS Control Programme (AACP). Their mission is to empower the local community with a particular focus on young victims of gender based violence. The work they do is closely linked to reducing poverty and HIV/AIDS transmission.

I got to speak to two lovely ladies during my visit, both of whom had been married off against their will. Child marriage is usually driven by the parents’ desire to receive a dowry. This lump sum of money or other gifts can make a big difference to poor families who see it as a welcome financial injection.

It should then come as no surprise that child marriage in Tanzania is most prevalent among less educated, economically underprivileged rural communities. Women in Shinyanga are the most at risk group within the country, with 59% married before the age of 18. Compared to Iringa where the prevalence is “only” 8% this figure is staggering. But what I found even more profound was the realisation that girls in Shinyanga are more likely to become child brides than they are to not.

The effect child marriage has on young girls was evident from all my interviews. They feel frustrated, alone and betrayed by those closest to them. Worse yet they are often robbed of a proper shot at a prosperous future – girls’ school enrolment rate drops from 98% at the primary to a measly 26%.

Over the last decade, 55,000 Tanzanian girls have also been expelled from school for being pregnant. The country has not formally reviewed its Education Act of 1978 in order to provide an alternative for these young mothers and until it does, organisations like Agape are likely to have their hands full. Try as they may by teaching their beneficiaries useful manual skills nothing can replace the benefits a solid education offers.

That is not to say Agape are not doing incredible work – they truly are. The girls’ renewed confidence and spark was awe-inspiring. Agape are not the only ones empowering the local population.

I was fortunate to visit a one stop centre for gender based violence victims in Kahama and interview some of its workers. From doctors to lawyers they all work tirelessly to help anyone that comes in. Their visitors range from women who are regularly beaten and raped by their husbands to those who have been abandoned with no financial support.

But to secure a happier future where centres like this one are no longer needed, we come back to the panacea I mentioned a few paragraphs above. Education.

Visiting Mwendakulima Secondary School poured optimism back into my veins. The Tuseme girl club – which has both female and male members! – is all about shifting the balance. It shows the children that there is a better way. There’s no need to suffer in silence as your future is taken away from you. Young girls belong in schools, not at the altar.

As the children sang their heart out, excited to have a visitor who momentarily distracted their teacher, said visitor held back tears. They looked so young yet each of the beautiful faces in front of me could rattle off the names of at least a dozen friends who’d left school after getting married.

There’s no doubt in my mind that these energetic young ladies have all it takes to build a bright future for themselves. But when it comes to adult matters like marriage, they still need us for protection. I hope the Tanzanian government takes note and explicitly establishes a minimum marriage age of 18 for both boys and girls, so the only thing keeping them away from their studies are innocent teenage crushes – not an older husband and a child.

The title of this post is just tongue-in-cheek wordplay. I certainly don’t believe society benefits from ascribing arbitrary attributes like “fair” to either gender. We’d be much better off if we simply treated one another as equals regardless of our sex or other popular discriminatory factors like skin colour, religion or who we fall in love with.

As the feisty Maryam from Malawi told me: “When you educate a girl you educate the whole nation, you know?” By helping girls stay in school we create a nation of capable intelligent women, who make informed choices and positively influence their communities. And when they do eventually decide to settle down and become mothers you can bet they’ll raise daughters even more empowered than they are, ad infinitum.

Now that’s a vicious cycle the world could use…

Leave a Reply