Child marriage continues to affect many young girls across Tanzania, in East Africa, but now a series of interventions supported by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) are allowing children to get the support they need to avoid unwanted and potentially damaging relationships.
It was 3 o’clock on a Friday afternoon when Grace*, a counsellor at the National Child Helpline in Tanzania, received a call from a concerned teacher in Msalala, a small town in the remote Shinyanga region in the north-west of the East African country.
One of her brightest students Eliza*, aged 13, had not gone to school that day following worrying rumours that her parents intended to marry her off. She learned that they had accepted a payment in the form of a bride dowry from the family of the intended groom. The man chosen for Eliza was at 35-years-old, more than 22 years her senior.
On a recent two-day visit to Tanzania, UNFPA’s Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, met with counsellors at the National Child Helpline, in the commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. The helpline is run by C-Sema, a national NGO, in collaboration with the Government.
The #116 toll-free service, available across all mobile networks in Tanzania mainland and Zanzibar, responds to around 3,500 calls a day from women and children who are at risk of violence, and from family and community members who report abuses.
The helpline has reported an increase in calls during the COVID pandemic as school closures made children more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
Trained volunteer counsellors like Grace give women and young people support, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The counsellors also liaise with support networks and protection systems in the callers’ locality to provide further assistance.
Eliza’s story has a happy ending. As a result of Grace’s coordination with local government authorities and district social welfare officers in Msalala, officers from the Police Gender and Children’s Desk visited Eliza’s parents and the marriage did not take place.
A whole-of-community effort
Dr. Kanem expressed gratitude to C-Sema and counsellors for their dedication to advancing gender equality and the health, rights and well-being of women and young people, including through the use of digital platforms and new technologies.
Despite progress and the commitment by the Government to tackle gender inequalities and discrimination, as articulated in the Five-year National Plans of Action to End Violence Against Women and Children, violence remains a daily reality for many women and adolescent girls.
UNFPA Tanzania is supporting efforts to eradicate gender-based violence and to strengthen protection systems across the country In addition to supporting the National Child Helpline, it is also working with police officers who staff specialized gender and children’s investigation units which meet the needs of women and girls, and other one-stop support services that provide holistic care all in one place to ensure that victims of abuse do not have to go from one place to another to get medical care, psychosocial support or legal assistance.
Community centres, where women support each other and take the lead in ending violence in their communities, have also been set up.
Empowering men and boys as agents of change
Efforts to end violence are not only focused on empowering women and girls. Men and boys, and traditional and community leaders, are also included in conversations in recognition of their role and contribution to gender equality. Through extensive community outreach, UNFPA’s partners are encouraging discussions around harmful stereotypes of masculinity and positive ways to support the rights of women and girls.
Engaging men in holding other men accountable is critical to creating the basis for greater equality and they must not be left out or left behind, stressed Dr Kanem. “Every girl and boy should be valued and should be taught that the expression of their right and empowerment should not be centred on overpowering others.”
Supporting government-led efforts
During her visit to Tanzania, Dr. Kanem met with the country’s first female President, Samia Suluhu Hassan, who expressed Tanzania’s commitment to eliminate preventable maternal and child deaths, gender-based violence and harmful practices, including female genital mutilation.
Dr. Kanem commended the government’s leadership and reaffirmed UNFPA’s support to Tanzania to realize development targets and stronger, more inclusive socioeconomic growth with the goal of leaving no one behind.
*name changed to protect identity.