Ending child marriage is not one of COCO's main aims, however no one aspect of development can be looked at in isolation, everything is connected, and education plays an important role in provoking change. Read this blog by COCO volunteer Emma to find out how COCO's work indirectly works to reducing child marriage in Tanzania.
By Emma Howell, COCO Volunteer
The traditional approach to poverty alleviation is broken. The orthodox view champions economic growth at all costs, neglecting the human rights narrative that promotes opportunities such as education and healthcare. The solution? That financial growth will establish a trickle down effect, providing resources to these fundamental areas of developing societies. We know this to be a broken promise.
COCO’s mission is to provide sustainable sources of quality education to children living in poor and marginalised communities. This mission is rooted in the need for a shift in our approach to poverty alleviation. That shift comes when we recognise that poverty is not just a problem for those ‘over there’, but rather a cause and consequence of human rights violations. When we view poverty through this global lens, we can start to think about human rights as freedoms rather than burdens.
Central to this approach is the provision of education. Through listening to the needs of communities in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda, via their Schools for Life initiative and sustainable agriculture training, COCO have been able to promote better health, improved self-esteem and the development skills essential for income opportunities. However, if Non-Governmental Organisations are to be truly effective in achieving their mission, we must take a holistic approach. Communities need to believe in the importance of education, and access for all, if there is to be a long lasting impact. Laws alone cannot safeguard human rights.
In 2016, Tanzania’s Constitutional Court declared child marriage unconstitutional. Dated laws under The Law of Marriage Act (1971) allowing boys to marry at 18 and girls 14 were replaced with laws setting the minimum age of marriage as 18 for both sexes. Despite this, Tanzania still has one of the highest child marriage prevalence rates in the world. UNICEF statistics have stated that 5% of children aged 15 are married, whilst 31% are married by age 18.
The importance of ending child marriage cannot be overstated, especially in Tanzania. Despite his 2015 manifesto and the positive example set by Tanzania’s neighbour, Kenya, President Magufuli has proclaimed that as long as he is President, no pregnant student will be allowed to return to school. In his book, after getting pregnant “you are done”. As part of this regime, school officials can conduct on the spot pregnancy tests, automatically expelling pregnant and married girls from school. In refusing re-entry, this regressive stance deprives girls of their right to education. Girls are forced to pursue the role of homemaker, entrenching out-dated gender roles that further prevent their entrance into the rewarding world of work. This form of detention for ‘bad behaviour’ also fails to acknowledge the forced circumstances under which child marriage is perpetuated.
Rebecca Gyumi, founder of a Tanzanian Charity ‘Msichana Initiative’ promoting girls’ rights has rightfully asserted that “changing the law is not the ultimate end to child marriage”, rather the real challenge is shifting attitudes whereby child marriage is deeply embedded as “a sort of survival system”. Outside of encouraging the implementation of supportive laws and policies (such as amending regulations so that girls can re-enter schooling), organisations such as COCO must work towards breaking the entrenched socio-economic and cultural drivers of child marriage.
In a society facing chronic poverty, child marriage, through the securing of a dowry, is viewed as a way of easing the economic burden on families. We need to encourage and provide better alternatives to raising financial security. Alternatives that don’t close the door on a child’s education and don’t open the door to greater risk of sexual and gender based violence. COCO is already working to achieve this through their sustainable agriculture training, such as the construction of ‘swales’ which trap water, increasing crop yields and thus income to enrol children into school. This alternative to raising finance must continue as it promotes, as opposed to compromises, children’s education and empowers community members through naturally available resources.
In ending child marriage, we must also tackle Tanzania’s entrenched, patriarchal system whereby women and girls are seen as mere extensions of men, as opposed to autonomous rights holders. Elder males in the community are often responsible for deciding when a child marries, the social norm of respectability preventing young girls from speaking out against their marriage. If we are to end child marriage, and work towards achieving gender equality, this social rule must be challenged. Through the provision of safe space programmes led by young mentors, we can empower young girls with information as to their sexual reproductive rights and create a safe environment for honest conversations about sex. In doing so, this will help to challenge local perceptions around the value of girls and importantly engage community leaders, especially men, to support girls decide if, when and whom to marry.
Change won’t happen overnight. However, with the adoption of these initiatives, COCO and other organisations can continue to provide sustainable access to education whilst working towards ending child marriage by 2030, as described in the 2015 Sustainable Development Goals.