Communities ending child marriage in Tanzania

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In 2016, the rate of child marriage in the Shinyanga region of Tanzania was 59%.  In other words, for every 100 girls below the age of 18, 59 of them were taken from their families and were married too early, often to much older men.  These vulnerable young girls quickly became more at risk of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, and sexually transmitted infections.  But we believe that while the reasons behind the practice are deeply entrenched, they can be overcome.

Supporting an integrated network of CBOs

Firelight has been partnering with the Oak Foundation, Dorothea Haus Ross Foundation, and an anonymous donor in supporting a cluster of 12 community-based organizations, which has impacted over 145,000 children, caregivers, and community members, to systematically eliminate child marriage in the Shinyanga region.

At Firelight, we believe that community-based organizations (CBOs) are uniquely positioned to stop child marriage where it starts – in the home and in the community. We also believe that community-based organizations have a major role to play in preventing child marriage in the future – by enabling normative change from the ground up and by presenting the voice of community in national-level conversations.

CBOs vary in their strategies and approaches, yet their work complements one another to result in an integrated network to uphold the rights of children locally, regionally, and nationally.  In the Shinyanga cluster, Firelight is also supporting one Lead Partner and one Community Grantmaker for additional mentoring and capacity building of the CBOs.  These two organizations have expertise in program implementation and organizational capacity building, as well as grantmaking.

Community Dialogues help identify the root causes

In order to surface community perspectives on the factors that enable and impede children’s safety and wellbeing, Firelight supported grantee-partners to engage their communities in a participatory research process – Community Dialogues – that was conducted annually for three years.  Using qualitative methodologies such as community mapping, body mapping, and H assessments, organizations allowed both children and adults to share their views on the spaces in which children spend time and on the factors that support and harm them.  This process enabled communities to look at root causes of violence against children and the ways in which this violence manifested itself in their communities.

Each year, early marriage and sexual abuse were consistently described – by primary school children, secondary school children, and adults, in multiple communities – as community factors harming children’s wellbeing.  Community members were also deeply concerned about factors related to child marriage – early sexual debut, early pregnancy, and risky sexual activities.

Developing multifaceted, holistic interventions

Community-based organizations in the region were already in the midst of responding to some of the most urgent child protection issues in their communities but were eager to refine their approaches.  Using the data from the Community Dialogues and support from Firelight and the Lead Partner and Community Grantmaker, Firelight grantee-partners developed multifaceted, holistic interventions to actively respond to the root causes of child marriage in their communities.  The following elements emerged as key elements of this holistic response:

  • Skillful parenting and parent support groups – Community facilitators train parents –especially those of children who are at risk of child marriage or who have been rescued from child marriages — in “skillful parenting,” which aims to awaken them to the issues their children face, equips them with the positive skills to care for their children and provide for their basic needs, trains them in child safeguarding, and gives them the tools to report child marriage and violence against children.
  • Economic strengthening of families – One of the central reasons for child marriage in communities is poverty. Supporting families with the tools to sustain their own income-generating activities, such as raising goats or pigs, allows them to send their girls to school instead of marrying them off.
  • Child protection system building – Child protection committees made of parents and community members are responsible for measuring and reporting cases of child marriage within their communities. They work with social welfare workers to manage these cases and refer them to the relevant law enforcement and judicial authorities for arbitration.
  • Teacher and student involvement – Community organizations train teachers and students in being able to recognize the signs of child marriage and report them to relevant authorities. Students also form clubs to teach peers about the importance of sexual and reproductive health, hygiene, and staying in school.
  • Awareness raising – CBOs actively engage their communities in combatting child marriage. From community members producing dramas and plays that show the negative consequences of child marriage to changing tribal bylaws that forbid children and parents to be involved in child marriage ceremonies, organizations ensure that community members are leading every step of the process.
  • Government advocacy – Organizations seek out meetings with ward- and district-level officers in order to share learnings and lobby for increased funding for child protection systems.

However, this model is not meant to be restrictive — organizations are able to add bespoke, creative elements and adapt these approaches in order to respond to the needs of their communities.

“Child marriage is becoming an unacceptable practice”

One grantee-partner, Agape AIDS Control Programme, was eager to share the profound success they have already begun seeing from this approach:

“When we started working with Firelight in 2016, more than 26 girls were rescued during child marriage ceremonies using law enforcement, more than 45 marriages were prevented by our network of community informants, and 33 cases were prevented by children reporting to teachers at school.  In 2017, we began to see changes in our community: 20 cases of child marriage were reported or prevented in total.  And now, in 2018 thus far, we have seen zero cases of child marriage reported or directly prevented.  Children and community members are developing and abiding by the bylaws they develop for their own communities, and child marriage is becoming an unacceptable practice.  We have already been asked by the Katavi and Tabora districts, where child marriage is still high, to expand our model to their communities.”

While Firelight grantee-partners have only been part of the concerted effort to reduce child marriage in the region, we have already seen them make meaningful, sustainable contributions to these efforts.  Grantee-partners have surfaced real data on actual rates of child marriage, engaged families, schools, and communities to look at root causes so they can solve the problem themselves, and worked with the district government to track and address individual cases.   But more importantly, communities have already reported real reductions in child marriages and pregnancies and have seen a significant increase in local understanding of the problems of child marriage and in the communities’ desire to stop this practice.

For us at Firelight, this is what success looks like.  When communities themselves decide to end harmful practices like child marriage and build the environments that support and nurture their children, we will continue to see children who are protected, safe, and happy — in a way that lasts.


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