According to UNICEF, Africa accounts for 15 of the 20 countries with the highest rate of early girl child marriages. (Child marriage in most parts of the world disproportionately affects girls and is almost a non-issue for young boys.) In recent weeks, however, two countries on opposite sides of the continent have taken a strong stand to protect these girls and to give them a chance at future success.
Although having carnal knowledge of a minor has been a criminal offense in Tanzania for years, teenage girls could still get married with their parents’ approval. However, according to a new law that was passed by parliament last month, it is now illegal for anyone to marry a schoolgirl, regardless of any parental or court approval.
Tanzanian men who either marry or impregnate underage girls now risk going to jail for 30 years.
According to Tanzania’s Attorney General Mr. George Masaju, the new law is intended to ensure that girls get a chance to complete their education, especially now that the government has expanded its free education policy.
“We are aiming to create a better environment for our school girls to finish their studies without any barriers,” the Attorney General said in parliament.
To ensure the law becomes effective, he has asked school heads to submit to the Ministry of Education a detailed report about underage girls who are married or become pregnant.
During last week’s Salah celebrations to mark the end of the Muslim Ramadan fast in the Gambia’s capital city Banjul, President Yahya Jammeh proclaimed:
“As from today, July 6, child marriage is illegal and is banned in the Gambia. Anyone who marries a girl under 18 years will spend 20 years in jail. The girls’ parents would spend 21 years in jail and anyone who knows about it and fails to report the matter to the authorities would spend 10 years in jail.”
Gambian lawmakers are expected to pass a law making the ban official on July 21, but President Jammeh’s words are law in the Gambia.
Under Jammeh’s prodding, Gambian legislators impressed human rights activists in December 2015, when they announced an official ban on female genital mutilation (FGM), the removal of a young girl’s labia and clitoris. The penalties for offenders include fines of 50,000 dalasi ($1,173) or three years in prison, while those found guilty of causing death by FGM could face life sentences.
The Gambia’s population is predominantly Muslim; the new ban on child marriage also carries a jail penalty for the imam or religious leader who conducts the marriage ceremony. Warning his audience about the consequences of flouting the new law, Jammeh told them in his characteristic totalitarian style: “If you want to know whether what I am saying is true or not, try it tomorrow and see.”
Reactions from Advocates
President Yahya Jammeh runs the Gambia like a private estate, and his government has been accused in the past by civil society organizations including Amnesty International of gross human rights violations and abuses. But his new move banning girl child marriage has been welcomed by human rights groups within and outside the Gambia.
Likewise, many human rights campaigners in Tanzania applaud the new law saying that the government’s recognition of the significance of girls’ education will help win the fight against child marriage, which has been a major problem in the country and Africa at large.
The Extent of the Problem
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), an estimated 36 percent of Gambian girls are married off before their 18th birthday, with seven percent of those girls married before the age of 15.
In June this year, the High Commission of Canada in Tanzania published a report on its website claiming that 4 out of 10 women in Tanzania were or will be married before their 18th birthday. According to Global Citizen, Tanzania also has a extremely high rate of teenage pregnancy, with 21 percent of girls aged between 15 and 19 having given birth.
Girls who marry early subsequently quit school to start a family, and many of them never return to complete their education. Their lack of formal education makes them vulnerable members of society, limiting their employment opportunities and often imprisoning them and their children after them in a cycle of poverty.
Early marriages also expose underage girls to sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence. Some girls become pregnant before their bodies are ready, exposing them to fatal consequences.
Across sub-Saharan Africa, an estimated 40 percent of girls marry before the age of 18.