Tigisi (not her real name), now 12, was forced to marry at age 9, but now attends a boarding school with the support of NAFGEM, a local organization. Simanjiro, Tanzania. August 9, 2014.

© 2014 Marcus Bleasdale/VII for Human Rights Watch

“You cannot continue with your education. You have to get married because this man has already paid dowry for you,” Matilda H’s father told her. Matilda, from Tanzania, was 14 and had just passed her primary school exams and had been admitted to secondary school. She pleaded with her father to allow her to continue her education, but he refused.  

She was forced to marry a 34-year-old man who already had one wife. Her family had received a dowry of four cows and 700,000 Tanzanian Shillings (about 435 dollars).

“I felt very sad. I couldn’t go to school,” she told Human Rights Watch (HRW). Matilda said her mother tried to seek help from the village elders to stop the marriage but “the village elders supported my father’s decision for me to get married.” Matilda’s husband physically and sexually abused her and could not afford to support her.

A new HRW report, ‘No Way Out: Child Marriage and Human Rights Abuses in Tanzania’, takes a hard look at child marriage in the Tanzania mainland. Four out of 10 girls in Tanzania are married before their 18th birthday. The United Nations ranks Tanzania as one of 41 countries with the highest rates of child marriage.

In the report, HRW documents how child marriage exposes girls and women to exploitation and violence – including marital rape and female genital mutilation – and reproductive health risks. It pays particular attention to the ways in which limited access to education contributes to, and results from, child marriage.

In Tanzania, girls face several significant obstacles to education. In addition to gender stereotypes about the value of educating girls — such as Matilda faced — discriminatory government policies and practices undermining girls’ access to education and facilitate underage marriage.

Marriage usually ends a girl’s education in Tanzania. Married or pregnant pupils are routinely expelled or excluded from school.

Tanzanian schools also routinely conduct mandatory pregnancy tests and expel pregnant girls. Human Rights Watch interviewed several girls who were expelled from school because they were pregnant. Others said they stopped attending school after finding out they were pregnant because they feared expulsion.

One such girl, 19-year-old Sharon J., said she was expelled when she was in her final year of primary school.

“When the head teacher found out that I was pregnant, he called me to his office and told me, ‘You have to leave our school immediately because you are pregnant.’”

A 2013 Tanzanian Ministry of Education and Vocational Training Tool Kit continues to recommend conducting periodic pregnancy tests as a way of curbing teenage pregnancies in schools. The new Education and Training Policy passed by Cabinet in June 2014 is regrettably silent on whether married students can continue with school, although it does make provisions for the readmission of girls after they have given birth and “for other reasons”.

Government use of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) has a disproportionate impact on children from poor backgrounds and exposes girls to child marriage. The government of Tanzania does not use the PSLE as an assessment tool, but rather as a selection tool to determine which pupils proceed to secondary school. Pupils who fail their exam cannot retake it or be admitted to a government secondary school.

Parents who are financially able can take their children to private schools. But parents whose daughters have failed the exam and who cannot afford private school fees, see marriage as the next viable alternative for girls.

Nineteen-year-old Salia J. was forced to marry at 15 after failing the PSLE.

“My only option was to join a private secondary school, but my parents are poor. My father decided to get me a man to marry me because I was staying at home doing nothing,” she told HRW.

A lost chance for education limits girls’ opportunities and their ability to make informed decisions about their lives. Ultimately their families and communities suffer too.

The Tanzanian government needs to urgently develop and implement a comprehensive plan to curb high rates of child marriage and mitigate its impact. Such a plan should include targeted policy and programmatic measures to address challenges in the education system that put girls at risk of child marriage.

The government should immediately stop the mandatory pregnancy testing of school girls and exclusion of married pupils and of pregnant girls from school. It should develop programs to encourage communities to send girls to school, and to enable married and pregnant girls to stay in school.

In the long run, Tanzania should take measures to increase access to post-primary education by taking all possible measures to ensure that all children can access secondary education irrespective of their PSLE results.

Many girls HRW interviewed regretted not being able to complete their education and asked that the government take steps to ensure girls who become pregnant or marry while in school are not denied an education. Tanzania should listen to the insights of those who know best what is wrong with the system: the girls themselves.