Just Say No

‘My father called to me one day and said I would have to be married. The next night I was sleeping in my room when he came knocking: “I am your Father and you must do what I say.” Outside there were two strange men on a motorbike and I was handed to them. They took me to a guesthouse and told me to choose which room I would sleep in. I was strong and said no. One of the men took a knife to me, I was afraid so I screamed and was taken to the police station. Afterwards my father said “I don’t want to see you any more” I was disowned from the family’ ~ Cecilia, Maasai Girl.

Unfortunately anecdotes such as this from a young girl I met during my time in Tanzania are far from unusual. It is extremely common for young girls to be subject to physical and psychological violence when they try to exercise their right to say no to sex.

According to a UNICEF database, over 50% of girls aged 15-19 worldwide (approx 126 million) think a husband is sometimes justified in beating his wife. Lack of respect for women, their personhood and their rights, pervades both male and female brains and leads to a lack of power, lack of self esteem, lack of opportunity, and discriminatory practises such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and early forced marriage (EFM).

At African Initiatives, we work in communities which suffer under male hierarchies, and where gender-based violence is seen as acceptable. We work hard to turn things around.

 

Child Brides

Think of marriage – what is it? The union of two people in love? Partners in a relationship? Now imagine that one of the two has not given her consent.

Imagine she is so young she still has her milk teeth.

EFM is a reality for so many girls in Tanzania, Ghana and many other countries worldwide. See our excellent video Ghana’s Dowry Girls for more on EFM.

In poor communities, girls are commonly seen as a form of currency, to be traded for livestock; “bride price” or dowry. Predictably, poverty has a big impact on child marriage rates with girls in the poorest communities being more likely to be married off. School fees coupled with the useful domestic role of women means schooling is not valued. Child brides tend to have little to no education. Being unable to negotiate sex, these girls are left vulnerable to a host of health problems such as HIV/AIDS, perinatal complications, depression and fatigue, miscarriage and infant death. In the worst cases girls are not physically mature enough to bear children and die in child birth.

 

The Way Forward

It can’t be stressed enough how vital education is when it comes to creating sustainable change. Our projects incorporate girls clubs in primary and secondary schools. These clubs provide a safe space within which students can learn about, discuss and address issues which are not covered in mainstream school time.

Our partners, such as the Pastoralist Women’s Council (PWC), are crucial when it comes to tackling these issues. Their staff are from the communities, so they understand the social and cultural context; They understand the speed at which things can change and what to tackle first.

Club members are encouraged to provide advice and support to other students and this ‘peer education’ has been found to be very effective. Last year, as a result of our Project in Tanzania, enrolment rates in Mbula project schools rose to 90%!

Subjects include rights awareness and building confidence. By becoming aware of risky behaviour, peer pressure and community expectations, girls begin to form their own opinions, and over time, feel able to express them and speak out loud in front of others – even strangers, elders and men.

Over time, clubs help to support girls in finding their own voice, with knock-on effects being that fewer girls drop out of school, and girls perform better in school examinations.

 

A Critical Step

Recently, some big steps have been made towards eliminating child marriage in Tanzania. The high court has imposed a landmark ruling outlawing marriage under the age of 18 for boys and girls and now, a man who marries or impregnates a school-age girl faces up to 30 years in prison. These steps have received worldwide praise from rights groups and activists but some concerns have also emerged.

Our CEO José, who has recently returned from Tanzania, says: “People find the sentence too hard so they are less likely to report the crime. It’s often someone they know, a neighbour, or the son of a neighbour, someone they’ve known for years and of course they don’t want to upset the neighbourly relations.”

Activist Isatou Jeng of the Gambian women’s rights organisation The Girls’ Agenda has expressed concerns as Gambia also takes the step to ban EFM: “I don’t think locking parents up is the answer… it could lead to a major backlash and sabotage the ban”.

Campaign group Girls Not Brides stresses that legislation alone will not be enough to stop EFM and reinforces the importance of engaging with communities around the topic: “It is essential to empower girls, to protect their rights and provide meaningful alternatives to marriage that are valued by communities, such as education”.

We dream of a world free of gender inequality, where saying ‘No’ is embraced as a basic human right without fear of repercussion. How do we get there?

It’s clear that the issue is far from resolved with the new legislation. Prison sentences may be one piece of the puzzle, but our work proves that lasting change comes from projects that slowly change attitudes and behaviours through education and dialogue.