'Surely someone must have known what was going on'... confessions of a Tanzanian child bride

Four out of ten girls in Tanzania marry before they reach the age of 18, at which point their life dreams receive a rude shock.

HUMAN Rights Watch has released a new report on child marriages in Tanzania. The report, “Tanzania: No Way Out. Child Marriage and Human Rights Abuses”, examines the ways in which forced child marriages violate girls’ rights to education, expose girls as young as seven years old to increased sexual and reproductive health risks, lead to child labour, and put the child brides at risk of domestic violence by husbands and extended family members. 

Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971 sets the minimum age at 18 for boys and 15 for girls with parental consent. It also permits both girls and boys to marry at 14 with a court’s permission. Even during its recent constitutional review process the Tanzanian government failed to protect girls and women from child and forced marriages, although the problem is immense: Four out of ten girls in Tanzania marry before they reach the age of 18. 

Mwanaidi Abed was one of the girls interviewed for the report, here is her story:  

My name is Mwanaidi Abed. I was born in 1997. In 2011, at age 14, I was married off to a man more than twice my age.  I felt blessed at first, thinking that married life would free me of hunger and misery. Little did I know that the hardships of a child born to peasant farmers paled in comparison to those of a child bride.

The village I grew up in was a pastoral hamlet near Shinyanga Town in northern Tanzania called Nyenze. Like my family, most people in Nyenze lived on what their small plots of land would yield.  It was hardly ever enough. Many a night we went to bed without food. New clothes were too expensive to afford, and so was medical care. 

I guess, I can count myself lucky that I was able to finish primary school and even qualified to go on to secondary school. But by then my mother had left us, not being able to endure the harsh life as the wife of a peasant farmer any longer. I was eight, when my mother left, and my father had to raise my siblings and me by himself.

My father was a poor man. Giving me away in marriage would take some of the burden to provide for so many of us off him. And although this meant that I could not continue with my education, I was not opposed. On the contrary, I thought I would be living a good life finally, in a proper house. That I would be wearing nice, comfortable clothes, that fit and were not torn, faded hand-me downs, and that I would be able to help feed my family. I was even a bit proud. My father received four cattle for me.

When a girl child is married and the bride price has been paid, her own family no longer has any authority over her. All decisions concerning her fate fall in the hands of her husband’s family. So when my husband started beating and torturing me, my father might have been aware of what was happening, but there was nothing he could have done about it.

My marriage life was nothing like what I had imagined. The beatings caused many injuries, and surely, people knew what was going on. But in fear of community norms and customs nobody ever reported my husband, and neither did I. After all, I had nowhere to go. I had to be patient, and keep silent.

Five months after I had had a baby boy, my husband left home without saying where he was going. He never came back. It was only then that I had the courage to return to my father and tell him what had been happening to me. I was 16 and had been living through two years of trauma. But I did not dare go and report my husband to the authorities. I was dead scared they might ask me where he went. Until today I do not know where my husband is.

In March 2014, the Agape Aids Control Program came to our village to introduce us to the Stop Child Marriages Project. They had a van that was a mobile cinema. The moment I saw the video about the harmful effects of child marriages, I knew my life was about to take a new turn.

I decided to introduce myself as a victim of child marriage. Initially, it found the thought of having to face the Agape Officers difficult. But as time went on I gained confidence and stepped towards their tent. I could not believe my own ears when I heard myself speak. I do not know where I plucked up the courage to talk about my story publicly, in front of a huge crowd of people. But the moment I had started I was unstoppable. I heard community members, especially men, shout: “You’re wasting our time. Better you sit down!” But I kept speaking until I had said what I needed to say.

The Agape officers committed to help me peruse a tailoring and entrepreneurship Programme. And that is what I currently do at Buhangija Focal Development College - perusing that course. I would like to thank Agape for taking me to college and giving me this new opportunity in life.

Apart from tailoring and entrepreneurial skills I have learnt a lot of things like confidence. I dream of a bright future  - for my son, Abdul Musa, and for myself. However, my dilemma is that I do not know how to secure a sewing machine and other equipment to start my own tailoring business. So, in case anybody or any organisation that reads my story can help, please let me know. I promise that I will study hard so as to achieve my dreams.

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