Gambia‘s President Yayha Jammeh announced that anyone marrying a girl below 18 would be jailed for up to 20 years.
In Tanzania, the high court imposed a landmark ruling outlawing marriage under the age of 18 for boys and girls.
Some 30% of underage girls are married in Gambia, while in Tanzania the rate is 37%.
Before the Tanzania ruling, girls as young as 14 could marry with parental consent, while it was 18 for boys.
The BBC’s Tulanana Bohela in Dar es Salaam says this is a big win for child rights groups and activists, who will now have an easier time rescuing girls from child marriage. The case was brought by lobby group Msichana Initiative.
Gambia’s President speaking at the Eid-ul-Fitr celebrations at the end of Ramadan, said parents and imams who perform the ceremonies would also face prison. “If you want to know whether what I am saying is true or not, try it tomorrow and see,” he warned.
Women’s rights campaigners have welcomed the ban, however some say that it would be better to engage with local communities to try to change attitudes towards child marriage instead of threatening families with prison sentences.
“I don’t think locking parents up is the answer… it could lead to a major backlash and sabotage the ban,” Isatou Jeng of the women’s rights organization Girls Agenda told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the Gambian capital, Banjul.
In December last year, Mr. Jammeh also outlawed female genital mutilation (FGM), with a prison sentence of up to three years for those that ignored the ban. He said the practice had no place in Islam or in modern society. Three-quarters of women in the mostly Muslim country have had the procedure, according to Unicef.
In 2003, when Theresa Kachindomoto was called upon to leave her job of 27 years as a secretary at a city college to become a village chief in Malawi, she refused. “I said ‘No, I don’t want to be a chief,’ she told writer Hannah McNeishfor AlJazeera, but the royal family insisted, asking her to pack her bags and head home to assume her position as the senior chief of Dedza district around Lake Malawi.
In obedience, the mother of five packed up and headed home to Dezda, little did she know that she would be an agent of great change in the district of over 100,000 people. Days after she arrived, Theresa was shocked to see female children as young as 12 with a husband, and children of their own.
Malawi ranks 8th out of 20 countries with the highest child-marriage rates in the world. According to a United Nations survey, more than half of Malawi’s girls are married before the age of 18. This comes as no surprise as the country only recently, in 2015, passed a legislation which changed the legal marriage age from 15 to 18 years.
Theresa immediately called for an end to child marriage, the termination of these existing marriages, and for parents to give their female children an education instead, but no one listened. Most parents said they were too poor to keep a female child, or send her to school, as it will make them poorer. A number of them felt Theresa had no right to change this tradition, especially as a mother of five boys.
If you can’t change them, change the law
Since she could not change their set mentality, Theresa opted to change the law instead. She met with 50 sub chiefs and made them sign an agreement to end child marriage under customary law, and to annul existing unions. “I said to the chiefs that this must stop, or I will dismiss them.” Four chiefs who did not adhere to the new law got dismissed for still allowing child marriage in their areas of jurisdiction. But seeing that Theresa meant business, they ensured that existing child marriages were terminated in their areas, this action got their positions reinstated.
The issue of child marriage is not just a Malawian problem, it is one that has long existed in many African countries, and including Nigeria which is one of the countries in Africa with the highest rate of child marriage, particularly in the North. Statistics show that Africa has 15 out of the 20 countries in the world with the highest rates of child marriage. And according to predictions from UNICEF, the number of child brides will double by 2050 if the current trend continues. The problems that accompany child marriages are numerous including STD’s, Vesicovaginal Fistula (VVF), and death.
In Malawi, there are certain appalling traditions that encourage child marriage and subject young girls to sexual abuse. Girls from as young as age seven are sent to “Kusasa fumbi – cleansing – camps”, a camp to prepare girls for womanhood and marriage. Here, they are taught how to please men by performing titillating dances and sex acts. Some end up leaving camp disvirgined by the teacher(s); those who are not, end up being defiled anyway by men hired by their parents to take their virginity and, or impregnate them. There is also a belief that sick men can cure themselves by having sex with virgins.
In the past three years, Chief Theresa has terminated more than 850 child unions, including putting an end to sexually abusive traditions, and sending these young girls to school. Most times, she funds their education, and sometimes she gets sponsors to do so. She also has a large network of village head, men and women who’s helping her enforce these laws. Some to ensure that the girls placed in school are not pulled out.