The most critical lesson Mwanahamisi Abdallah learned as a student in Tanzania came during a graduation ceremony when she was 14.
A teacher noted that several students had left school early to marry. The teacher then shared an emergency phone number for any girl pushed into marriage.
“I wrote down the number and went home,” said Mwanahamisi, now 15 years old.
She held on to that number.
Mwanahamisi comes from a village in the country’s southeastern Lindi area.
One day, her mother informed her she soon would be married to a stranger. Mwanahamisi burst into tears. She cried out, “I don’t want to be married!’’ But her mother ignored her. She said that the man was young and a good person.
Mwanahamisi’s grandmother gave her a wireless phone to communicate with the man she was to marry.
Instead, Mwanahamisi used it to plan her escape.
“Immediately, I called the police officers. They asked me to get the man’s name and the wedding date,” Mwanahamisi remembered. Once she had a few details from her mother and passed them along, police notified a local official. The official showed up at the family’s home the day before the planned marriage. He asked the girl whether she wanted to marry.
“When I said no, he halted the ceremony,” she said of the official.
A local social worker made plans for the girl to move to a shelter in Dar es Salaam, about 325 kilometers to the north.
Child marriage in Sub-Saharan Africa
Mwanahamisi was able to avoid an unwanted marriage. That is not the case for many young women in African countries below the Sahara desert. The area has the world’s highest number of child marriages.
Every year, more than three million girls there marry before they turn 18, the United Nations Children’s Fund reports. The area also has some of the highest rates of boy child marriage, UNICEF noted in a spring 2019 report.
Girls are pushed into early unions by custom or a lack of good possibilities, research shows. Children most at risk of early marriage come from poor families in rural areas and have limited access to education. In sub-Saharan Africa, seven in 10 girls finish primary school, but only four in 10 complete the lower secondary level, World Bank researchers say.
In a November 2018 report, the World Bank said women with secondary education “are more likely to work, and they earn twice as much as those with no education.” The report estimates that child marriage could cost a collective $63 billion in lost earnings over the lifetimes of women in 12 African countries.
The campaign has targeted 30 countries, including Niger and Tanzania. It tries to educate about people on the personal and societal good of delaying marriage. It calls for “supporting legal and policy actions” to protect human rights and build a social movement. And, Situmbeko says, the AU has shown respect for traditional and religious leaders.
“They are the ones who can lead the agenda of changing social norms and the value that is placed on the girl,” she said.
In Tanzania, where Mwananhamisi left her family to avoid marriage, about one-third of girls marry by 18, says Girls Not Brides. As a result, just more than 25 percent of all girls complete secondary school.
In a January report on Tanzania, the World Bank said that ending child marriage and early childbearing would slow the country’s population growth. This would reduce the demand for social services as well as pressure on infrastructure. The country could see savings of up to $5 billion a year by 2030 as a result, the report said.
The Tanzanian government and courts are struggling with child marriage. A legal action led its high court to strike two parts of the country’s marriage law in 2016. The action raised girls’ lowest marriageable age to 18. Before that, the age was 15.
But the government appealed the decision last year, saying the lower age protected girls who become pregnant when they are not married. A ruling is expected soon. For now, the government expels pregnant girls from school.
“My dream is to become a great fashion designer!”
Despite the unsettled law, Tanzanian girls like Mwanahamisi have been able to get help when faced with an unwanted marriage.
They, like Mwanahamisi, can turn to the federal Tanzania Police Force. It has trained teams across the country to deal sensitively with reports of domestic or sexual violence, human trafficking or threats to children. Officials can remove children from a situation they believe is unsafe.
Mwanahamisi went to a Dar es Salaam shelter run by Kiota Women’s Health and Development (KIWOHEDE). The non-governmental organization also operates drop-in centers for at-risk girls and women. Mwanahamisi has worked with counselors to recover from trauma. She is taking classes in computer science, finances, cooking and textile arts.
“My dream is to become a great fashion designer!” she says.
KIWOHEDE leader Justa K. Mwaituka says Mwanahamisi, “has become an inspiration.” She says Mwanahamisi helped start a girls’ group that meets daily to support the goals of education, female empowerment and a greater say in whether and when to marry.
Communication with Mwanahamisi’s family is limited. The girl’s mother sends messages through a social worker.
The goal is to reconnect the family but delay an unwanted union, says Regina Mandia, who runs the shelter.
She adds, “Rushing these children to marry is to curtail their dreams.”
I’m Ashley Thompson. And I'm Caty Weaver.
VOA reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.
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Words in This Story
graduation –n. the act of receiving a diploma or degree from a school, college, or university : the act of graduating
access –n. a way of getting near, at, or to something or someone
infrastructure –n. the basic equipment and structures (such as roads and bridges) that are needed for a country, region, or organization to function properly
domestic –adj. relating to or involving someone's home or family
trauma –n. a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time
fashion –n. the business of creating and selling clothes in new styles
rush –v. to move or do something very quickly or in a way that shows you are in a hurry
curtail –v. to reduce or limit (something)