KAHAMA — Maria was barely 16 when her father removed her from school to marry her off to a man 20 years older than she was just so that the family could receive 11 cows as her dowry.
“I didn’t want to get married, I wanted to study and become a doctor, but all my dreams seem to have been crushed,” she said.
Distraught, Maria who is now 18, repeatedly pleaded with her father to let her finish her education but he completely refused.
“If you don’t want to get married get out of my house, my father told me angrily,” she said.
Maria’s father, a struggling peasant farmer in drought-hit Ngongwa village, in the northern Shinyanga region has always banked on his daughters as financial assets amid biting poverty.
Maria’s older sister who was also subjected to forced marriage to a polygamous man four years ago, died of excessive bleeding during childbirth, she said.
But to avoid the same fate as her late sister, Maria decided to escape before the marriage actually took place and made her way to her aunt’s home in a far off village. She was too scared to go home.
“I didn’t want to experience the suffering that my sister went through, that’s why I decided to run away,” she said.
But no sooner had she settled to start a new life, than she realised that she was pregnant.
“I was ashamed, totally ashamed. I took it as a big insult to my family and my father even though he was forcing me to marry,” she said.
Maria had been having a sexual affair with a young man who gave her a bicycle ride to and from school even before her father decided to marry her off.
Maria gave birth to a baby boy in 2014 and decided to stay with her aunt because even if she went back home her father would not accept the burden of raising his grandchild born out of wedlock.
“I am very glad my aunt was very supportive to me, she shouldered a huge responsibility during my pregnancy,” she said.
Maria’ story illustrates the plight of many school girls in Shinyanga and across Tanzania whose future dreams are often shattered due to pregnancy.
Tanzania has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world with one in every six girls aged between 15 and 19 getting pregnant, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
In Shinyanga region, girls who become pregnant before marriage are often stigmatised by their family members, said Consolata Mabula, a district social worker in Shinyanga.
Adolescent girls with their children take part in a training session to equip them with life skills after they had dropped out of school due to pregnancy.
In an effort to offer young mothers a second chance at education, the United Nations agency — Unesco is running a special project to empower girls who drop out of school due to pregnancy and give them a chance to change the course of their lives through vocational training.
“I am happy to join this group, maybe I will realise my dream to become a doctor someday, who knows?” Maria posed after learning about the project through her friend.
The project called “Provision of Alternative Learning Opportunities for Adolescent Girls Forced out of School due to Teenage Pregnancies” started in 2011 and is funded by the Japanese government. So far it has trained more than 200 girls in the region.
Zulmira Rodrigues, the unesco representative in Tanzania said alternative learning is the best way to equip the girls with knowledge and skills to sustain their lives while enabling them to reach their future dreams.
“Education is the only key to allow young girls make informed decisions about their lives to improve their social economic wellbeing,” she said.
According to her, most adolescent girls in rural areas often succumb to sexual violence and unwanted pregnancies due to a lack of proper reproductive health information.
While Tanzania has made huge progress in enrolling children in primary schools, few girls in rural areas manage to finish their education due to pregnancy, Mabula said.
According to unesco, Shinyanga is among the regions with highest dropout rates of adolescent girls due to early marriage and teenage pregnancies.
Local analysts attribute the situation to the lack of a legal framework to deter parents from marrying off their underage girls as well as oppressive traditional customs that undermine girls’ rights.
“Some parents would rather marry off their daughters to get a dowry than let them go to school” said Leah Omari, a lecturer at the Institute of Social Work in Dar es Salaam.
According to unesco, teachers in Shinyanga region reported that some parents have been instructing their daughters to deliberately fail so that their education would be terminated and then they could get married.
While sex with underage girls is criminalised in Tanzania, activists say parents often use this tactic to marry off their daughters under special dispensation granted by the marriage law.
According to Tanzania’s Marriage Act of 1971, a girl as young as 15- years old can get married with parental or a court consent.