Girl Brides and Mothers

There are many girls In the Maasai Harmonial community who were married as young as age 12. This is despite the fact that the legal age of marriage in Tanzania is 18, and despite the initiatives to end child marriage and support married girls by the African Union Initiative to End Violence against Children.

Marrying girls in exchange for cows or money is still being practiced and Tanzania has one of the highest percentage of child brides in the world. Almost two out of five girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday. Girls living in poor households are almost twice as likely to marry before 18 than girls in higher income households, and there is no question that the Maasai Harmonial community is impoverished: many of their cows were killed by volcanic ash in 2008; people are not allowed to cultivate, and health care facilities are far away.

In 2010, 22.8% of girls aged 15 to 19 in Tanzania had children or were pregnant and Tanzania had the highest adolescent fertility rate in the world.

Child marriage violates girls’ rights to health, education and opportunity. It exposes girls to violence throughout their lives, and traps them in a cycle of poverty.

Pregnancy is consistently among the leading causes of death for girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. Girls between the ages of 10 and 14 years are 5 to 7 times more likely to die in childbirth; girls between the ages of 15 and 19 years are twice as likely.

Obstetric fistulas – holes in the birth canal – are common among young mothers who give birth at home because their birth canals are too small and they are too poor to attend health clinics. These fistulas can leak bladder and/or bowel contents. However, Maasai Harmonial women are able to go to FAME hospital 70km away in Karatu.

Mothers under the age of 18 have a 35% to 55% higher risk of delivering a preterm or low-birth weight infant than mothers older than 19 years. The infant mortality rate is 60% higher when the mother is under the age of 18 years. Data demonstrates that even after surviving the first year, children younger than 5 years had a 28% higher mortality rate in the young mothers cohort. This morbidity and mortality is due to the young mothers’ poor nutrition, physical and emotional immaturity, lack of access to social and reproductive services, and higher risk for infectious diseases.

Child brides often face a higher risk of contracting HIV because they often marry an older man with more sexual experience. Girls ages 15 – 19 are 2 to 6 times more likely to contract HIV than boys of the same age in sub-Saharan Africa.

Girls who marry before 18 are more likely to experience domestic violence than their peers who marry later.

Unless something is changed for the better, the global number of child brides will reach 1.2 billion girls by 2050, with devastating consequences for girls, their families and their countries.

Some girls are forced to get married young to generate an income, or dowry, which can then be used by their brothers to secure a wife.

Child marriage is rooted in the low value accorded to girls, and is exacerbated by poverty, insecurity and conflict.

Pressure to marry young usually comes from girls’ families and communities and the broader cultural attitudes that influence these groups’ attitudes and behavior.

Girls with higher levels of schooling are less likely to marry as children. In Mozambique, some 60% of girls with no education are married by 18, compared to 10% of girls with secondary schooling and less than one percent of girls with higher education.

Education is one of the best solutions to child marriage. However, a lack of secondary schools means girls in rural areas often live far from their nearest school. If they cannot travel there safely, or have started menstruating and there are no sex-segregated toilets, they may miss school. Married girls with children may lack child support facilities or may not be allowed to return to school.

In the Maasai Harmonial village there is a ’nursery’ school in the village for ages 5-7. It is a building that is almost roofless and there is only one book. After nursery school, children can attend ‘primary’ school (ages 7-14) in Nainokanoka, a 4 mile walk each way. Secondary school is ages 15-19.

However, Human Rights Watch has highlighted that the Tanzanian government’s Primary School Leaving Examination, which determines which pupils may continue on to secondary school, exposes girls to child marriage.

Adolescent girls are sometimes forced to marry after failing the exam, whilst mandatory pregnancy tests and expelling pregnant and married girls from school also violates girls’ rights.

The fact that children in the Maasai Harmonial community have to walk 4 miles to school and 4 miles back is the main reason many parents do not send their child to school, especially girls. Recently the Maasai Harmonial community decided to send their children to a free boarding school in Nainokanoka. However the boarding school does not take children under age 9, so that leaves a big gap in education.

We are putting in place a program to provide uniforms to all girls and also to some of the boys who do not have uniforms. There are only 25 girls to 80 boys. Some other incentive may be needed to encourage parents to send their girls to school. Uniforms are about $25 each.

We have also sent 3 girls, ages 5-8 to English Boarding school. This requires funding of about $1000 per year for each girl.

We hope to build up the village school and perhaps make it for ages 5-8 so that children don’t have to walk 8 miles round trip to school. It costs about $15,000 to build a new school under the One-Day School program run by the Seventh Day Adventists in Tanzania.

For girls to refuse marriage, they have to understand and ‘own’ their rights, and be able to support their own life plans.

Programs to eradicate child marriage should equip girls with training, skills, and information, and provide safe spaces and support networks.

This means providing girls with the chance to connect with their peers and support each other as well as having access to formal support services.

Marie Stopes has told us that they offer a program for youth. We will also be looking into this youth program. Marie Stopes has already provided family planning to some of the women in the Maasai Harmonial community. We think the Marie Stopes program will empower girls and also make them aware of how they can become pregnant and how to avoid it.

We also are planning a tablet program and series of educational videos to be installed on the tablets. We are thinking of ways the tablets can be used as incentives to get girls into school.

Some of the tablet videos will provide sex education to both girls and boys. Sex education has been proven helpful in preventing pregnancy for adolescents.

Women’s and girls rights will be the subject of tablet videos for women.

In addition, there should be available real alternatives to marriage – different lifestyles and roles for unmarried girls that girls and their families value and respect.

We are also sponsoring a young woman in health college and a young man in veterinary college. Educated people, especially female, can serve as models for the generation to come.

Families, communities, young people and the media should be engaged to work together to address deep-rooted values and traditions by engaging to change attitudes and behaviors related to child marriage.

In the new Maasai Harmonial Development & Sustainability organization, its constitution allows youth to have their own representatives who have some voting power at the General Assemblies. Girls and boys will have equal representation. We hope this will allow youth, and particularly girls, to have a voice in their future.

Legislation on the minimum age for marriage must form part of a broader legal framework that protects women and girls’ rights – from property rights and protection from violence, to support for those wishing to leave a marriage. Any loopholes – for example related to parental consent or customary laws – must be removed.


Girls Not Brides –

NCBI – National Center for Biotechnology for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine