Tanzania is one of the African countries with the highest rates of child marriage in the world – two out of every five girls marry before their 18th birthday with a prevalence rate of 37% nationwide, according to the country’s national demographic and health survey of 2015/16.
Rebeca Gyumi, in early 2016, filed a petition at the High Court to challenge the Tanzania Marriage Act which allowed girls as young as 14 to get married and won a landmark case that same year that raised the age of child marriage from 14 to 18.
Following the impact of her work, Gyumi was named the 2016 UNICEF Global Goals award winner for her work in advancing girls’ rights in Tanzania. That same year, she was named 2016 Woman of the Year by New Africa Magazine.
Today, the girls rights activist is preparing to receive the 2018 Human Rights Prize awarded by the United Nations.
She tells news site CNN: “I was pretty much shocked. So shocked and caught unaware that I was even considered for such a prestigious prize.”
Growing up, at the age of 13, she realized that some of her colleagues in school were compelled to abandon their education because they were given away in marriage due to pregnancy.
At the age of 20, Gyumi became aware that child marriage was not just a local problem in her community but a national one.
“It bothered me that the age for boys to be married was 18 but for girls, it was 14,” she said.
Sadly, that is the reality in many parts of the African continent including Niger, Central African Republic, Chad, Mali and South Sudan. Each year, 15 million girls are married before the age of 18 and if the current trends continue, the number of girls who marry as children will reach 1.2 billion by 2050, warns Girls Not Brides, a global organisation committed to ending child marriage.
Girls who marry as children are often not able to achieve their full potential, as they leave school early, suffer domestic violence and do not get access to proper healthcare.
Some even die during pregnancy and childbirth as a result of complications because their bodies are not ready. Child marriages affect the economies of several countries and it is worrying that some countries still allow the practice to continue.
While studying law at the university, Gyumi learned about the Tanzanian Marriage Act of 1971 and realized that there was an opportunity to challenge the law.
Along with her colleagues, she went ahead to do that, especially some years after pursuing law as a profession. What the team did was to petition the Tanzanian High Court to change the Tanzanian Marriage Act which allowed girls as young as 14 to get married, providing ample reasons as to why child marriages should end.
In July 2016, the High court ruled in her favour and declared that Sections 13 and 17 of the Marriage Act were unconstitutional and raised the minimum age to 18 for both boys and girls.’’
Though critics attacked her for promoting a “western culture”, many people across the country welcomed the news but their joy became short-lived when the government appealed against the ruling in 2017, arguing that child marriage can protect girls who get pregnant out of wedlock.
The case is in Tanzanian’s high court at the moment and a verdict is supposed to be out soon. Meanwhile, Gyumi believes that a victory for the government would “look really bad” as “it is not a victory a country can be proud of.”
Being the founder and the Executive Director of Msichana Initiative, an NGO which aims to empower girl children through education, Gyumi says the amendment of the law is not their only focus as their aim is to ensure that the law is being enforced at the local level.
“We need to teach girls around the country to stand up for their rights and continue engaging with communities,” she says.
In spite of the challenges from critics and some government stakeholders, Gyumi is optimistic that winning the 2018 Human Rights Prize would put her and her country on the map.
“It’s a proud moment for me and for the girls I stood up for and for the ongoing global progress that is happening around girls’ and women’s rights.”