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President Suluhu: Please remember the girls

By 2017 the World Bank documented that upwards of 5000 girls a year were forced to permanently drop out of school in Tanzania on account of pregnancy. On the backdrop of this, Tanzania’s Law of Marriage Act permits girls as young as 15 years old to get married with their parents’ permission, or as young as 14 years old with court approval.

As the world congratulates Tanzania on the peaceful transition and transfer of power following the sudden demise of its fifth President John Pombe Magufuli, human rights actors especially women’s right activists have been at the fore calling for critical transitional justice mechanisms and measures including reform of the Tanzanian constitution and reinstatement of basic rights for certain critical groups.

Indeed the past five years of the late President Magufuli’s reign were checkered with some claiming, on the one hand, economic progress and reduction in graft and on the other a stifling of the civic space with the rights of women and girls as well as the fourth estate bearing the brunt of the administration’s crackdown. Whilst many of the challenges to the rights of women and girls in Tanzania have been a long term problem, with practices such as the expulsion of pregnant girls and young mothers from education in Tanzania having begun in 1961, blatant discrimination against adolescent girls, and perpetuation of practices that fostered their continued violation in society seemed to have fomented if not been exacerbated in the past five years.

By 2017 the World Bank documented that upwards of 5000 girls a year were forced to permanently drop out of school in Tanzania on account of pregnancy. On the backdrop of this, Tanzania’s Law of Marriage Act permits girls, but not boys, as young as 15 years old to get married with their parents’ permission, or as young as 14 years old with court approval. These girls, married as children eventually wind up pregnant and are therefore forced out of school on account of pregnancy or because they are married – itself a ground for expulsion.

Despite a successful petition by civil society actors to repeal this discriminatory law in 2017, the government of Tanzania having lost the case, still retains this discriminatory provision in its statutes. The civic space to further challenge the status quo was immediately closed with Tanzania passing a bill in 2020 that at once outlawed public interest litigation on civic rights and arrogated immunity to heads of the Executive, Legislature, and the Judiciary. In present day Tanzania, one now has to show the extent to which a law “has affected a person personally” if one is to be allowed to challenge a section of the law no matter how discriminatory.

Presently Tanzania has one of the highest prevalence rates of child marriage in the world with two out of five girls being married before their 18th birthday according to Tanzania’s Demographic Health Survey 2014. In addition to this, cases of sexual violence are also recorded as quite high in various studies. Despite these high pregnancy numbers, students including adolescent girls do not have access and are often deprived of the necessary reproductive health and rights education and information.

The picture is indeed bleak for the Tanzanian adolescent girl and it would be foolhardy to make assumptions that because President Samia Suluhu Hassan is a woman she will automatically address the challenges to the girls’ rights, both immediate and systemic. Undeniably, historically, the experiences of women and victims of gender-based violations have not been adequately addressed by transitional justice processes, nor have women had sufficient representation or opportunities for participation within accountability, acknowledgment, and reform measures. This has almost always led to serious flaws in even those transitional justice efforts that can otherwise be considered relative successes.

As we laud Tanzania therefore for an impressive transition of power and present to the new presidency various prayers and petitions, it is critical that the plight of adolescent girls be prioritized on this list to address both the legal framework and policy that facilitates their violation but also provide remedies to the hundreds of thousands of girls who are victims now of child marriage, sexual violence and lack of education.

It is time Tanzania remembers the girls.

Op-Ed by Faiza Mohamed, Director, Equality Now, Africa Office, and Koshuma Mtengeti, Executive Director CDF, Tanzania.