TANZANIA: Early marriage puts girls at risk of HIV

Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Data collected by the Tanzania Media Women Association (TAMWA) shows a strong correlation between HIV/AIDS, early school exit, teenage marriage and pregnancy.

Tanzanian law allows girls aged as young as 15 to get married with parental consent, and between 20 percent and 40 percent do so before reaching adulthood, according to the United Nations Population Fund, which addresses reproductive health and population issues.

The TANWA report, based on pregnant adolescent girls attending hospitals in the densely populated southeastern Coast and central Morogoro provinces, commented that their husbands "characteristically have had multiple partners, which puts the girls at the risk of being infected with HIV/AIDS". Immature and financially dependent, the adolescent brides are unlikely to be able to negotiate safer sex.

"The girls are too young and ignorant about the importance of knowing their HIV/AIDS status, and lack the courage to convince their partners to know their sero-status," said Upendo Mwinchande, director of the AIDS Business Coalition of Tanzania (ABCT).

Although 76.6 percent of the TANWA study sample were aware of the risks posed by HIV, most of the expectant girls were married and refused to go for HIV tests, even after counselling. Over six percent of those tested were found to be HIV-positive - just one percent below the national prevalence rate.

"The education system is not protective of young girls. They walk long distances to and from school, which exposes them to the risks of rape or abduction into marriage. The laws do not criminalise anti-girl practices, such as early marriages," said Mwinchande.

She said the coastal and Morogoro regions still had high levels of girl illiteracy. "Girls are still traditionally discriminated against in coastal regions, and some as young as 11 years are withdrawn from school to be married off. In health terms it is dangerous, because the tissues of the sexual organs are delicate and therefore prone to rupture during sexual intercourse, creating entry points for HIV."

Girls who dropped out of primary school were increasingly being forced into early marriage or early sexual debut to support themselves financially.

"The infected are poorly informed; the poor are motivated by the sheer pride of having a husband and the parents' unremitting desire for bride-wealth," said the TANWA report. Young girls had virtually no control over their sex lives, as "they are no more than toys in matrimonial matters".

The findings are a challenge to the government, which announced a new education policy in August emphasising the education of girls. Starting in 2007, the government plans to build more district boarding schools to counteract the low numbers of girls making the transition from primary to secondary school.

Mwinchande said the policy was long overdue and, if implemented, could help tackle HIV infection among highly vulnerable adolescents.
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