By Kizito Makoye
DAR ES SALAAM (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Tanzanian men who marry schoolgirls or get them pregnant now face 30 years in prison as the government takes tougher measures to tackle child marriage and teenage pregnancy.
The east African nation has one of the highest adolescent pregnancy and birth rates in the world, and 21 percent of girls aged 15 to 19 have given birth, according to a 2015/16 survey conducted by the Tanzania Bureau of Statistics.
While sex with underage girls is already a criminal offence, poor parents often marry off their young daughters for cash using a special dispensation under the marriage law which allows girls as young as 14 to marry with parental or court consent.
But new provisions passed by the parliament in June make it illegal for anyone to marry primary and secondary school girls under any circumstances.
George Masaju, Tanzania's Attorney General, said the new measure was taken to complement Tanzania's free education policy, launched in January, and ensure that all girls are able to complete their education.
"We are aiming to create a better environment for our school girls to finish their studies without any barriers," he told parliament.
Worldwide, 15 million girls are married off as children every year.
Early marriage not only deprives girls of education and opportunities but increases the risk of death or serious childbirth injuries if they have babies before their bodies are ready.
Child brides are often disempowered and at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence and HIV, experts say.
"Girls who are married off at a young age are being denied the freedom to make informed decisions later in life," said Eda Sanga, head of the Tanzanian women's rights group TAMWA.
The new Tanzanian law states that "any person who impregnates a primary school or a secondary school girl commits an offence and shall, on conviction, be liable to imprisonment for a term of thirty years."
To ensure enforcement of the law, Masaju said all school heads will be required to submit a detailed report about students who were married or pregnant to the Education Ministry.
While the government's move focuses on protecting school girls from "predators", women's rights campaigners said greater recognition of the importance of girls' education is crucial to the battle against child marriage.
"I think we ought to focus on imparting life skills to girls in school, so that they can be assertive to say no," said Leila Sheikh, a Dar es Salaam-based women's rights activist and blogger.
And girls who are kicked out of school for getting pregnant should be allowed to return to their studies after giving birth, said 21-year-old Emily Nyoni, who was expelled from her Dar es Salaam school in 2012 after falling pregnant.
"I think it is wise to punish men who impregnate school girls," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "But the government should also allow those who get pregnant to go back to school."
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)