Maria was barely 16 when her father removed her from school and married her off to a man 20 years her senior in exchange for a dowry of eleven cows.
She recalls, “I didn’t want to get married. I wanted to study and become a doctor, but all my dreams seem to have been crushed.”
Maria, who is now 18, pleaded with her father to let her finish her education. Her father is a farmer in drought-stricken Ngongwa village in the northern region of Shinyanga. He had always relied on his daughters as financial assets. So when she asked to go to school, he refused. He gave her two options: get married or get out of the house.
Maria’s older sister was forced to marry a man four years ago, and died of excessive bleeding during childbirth.
To avoid her late sister’s fate, Maria decided to escape before the marriage. She went to her aunt’s home in a distant village. But no sooner had she started a new life than she realized she was pregnant.
Maria had been sexually active with a young man before her father decided to marry her off. She recalls, “I was ashamed, totally ashamed. I took it as a big insult to my family and my father, even though [my father] was forcing me to marry.”
Maria’s story illustrates the situation of many schoolgirls across Tanzania after they get pregnant.
Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world. One in every six girls between 15 and 19 years old gets pregnant, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The UN also says that Shinyanga Region has one of the highest dropout rates of adolescent girls because of teenage pregnancy and early marriage.
Local people explain the situation by pointing to the lack of a legal framework to discourage parents from marrying off their underage girls, as well as traditional customs that undermine girls’ rights.
Leah Omari is a lecturer at the Institute of Social Work in Dar es Salaam. She says, “Some parents would rather marry off their daughters to get a dowry than let them go to school.”
While sex with underage girls is against the law in Tanzania, parents often marry off their daughters; Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971 allows girls as young as 15 years old to get married with parental or court consent.
Activists say that, once married, the girls often experience physical and sexual violence which affects their reproductive health.
To help young mothers get a second chance at education, UNESCO is running a special project which offers vocational training to teenage girls who drop out of school.
Maria heard about the project through a friend, and hopes it will help her realize her dream of becoming a doctor.
So far, the project has trained more than 200 girls in Shinyanga Region. Zulmira Rodrigues is UNESCO’s representative in Tanzania. She says alternative learning is the best way to give girls the knowledge and skills to sustain their lives and help them attain their dreams. She adds that unwanted pregnancies are a result of the lack of proper information on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Zaituni Mkwama is a girl from Kahama who was expelled for being pregnant when she was 17. When a mandatory pregnancy test confirmed she was pregnant, she says, “I was given a letter of dismissal from school. I felt really bad and scared.” She had dreamed of becoming a lawyer.
“Poverty is a key factor,” says Eda Sanga, the Executive Director of Tamwa, a women’s rights organization based in Dar es Salaam. “Parents force underage girls to marry so they can escape the role of taking care of their daughters and grandchildren.”
To read the full article on which this story is based, Tanzania: Girls Struggle to Avoid Forced Marriage, Yearn to Learn, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2016/01/tanzania-girls-struggle-to-avoid-forced-marriage-yearn-to-learn/
Photo: Adolescent girls in Shinyanga dancing as part of the altenative learning programme by UNESCO aimed at equiping them with life skills. Credit: Kizito Makoye/IPS