‘An educated girl is only worth five cows!’ RT documentary investigates child marriages in Tanzania

‘An educated girl is only worth five cows!’ RT documentary investigates child marriages in Tanzania
More than a third of all Tanzanian women are married before the age of 18, with many forced into wedlock as young as 11. The country’s High Court recently imposed strict penalties on underage weddings, but as RT’s documentary unit has discovered, attitudes on the ground are stubbornly clinging to old practices.

Watch "Bride Trade" on RTD website

In a typical scene in the east African country, two sets of family members, sat across each other negotiate the dowry of 13-year-old Maasa. The girl, and her female relatives watch from a distance, in silence.

“We'll give you 3 cows,” goes the starting bid from the groom’s family.
“Three cows? It's not enough!” replies the head of Maasa’s family.
“I'll add two more.”
“I need 15 cows!”
“Let's be realistic.”
“Ok, we'll lower our demand from 15 to 10.”

The haggling continues, and eventually, the parties settle on a dowry of 10 cows; 7 now and another 3 once the marriage works out, with a kid goat thrown in for Maasa’s great-grandfather.

“In our society it's far more important to get cows than to keep your daughter at home. I also have sons: one day they will marry and bring girls home, so we'll have girls in the household,” Maasa’s mother tells RT, as she attempts to calm down her visibly nervous daughter.

“Traditionally cows are more valuable than daughters,” adds Maasa’s grandmother.

Tanzania, a country of over 50 million people, has one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world, and for rural inhabitants, livestock is not just a sign of prosperity and dowries not just a way of creating family ties – in poor seasons, these can be the only means of survival.

But the girls are pawns, and even those happy to become child brides suffer.

As Human Rights Watch and other international campaigners point out, marriage almost by default marks the end of a girl’s educational path. In fact, studious girls are often not considered prime marriage material in the first place.

“Men want to marry young girls. Girls aged 12, 13, or 14. If a girl marries early, she adapts more easily to her new family. Educated girls aren't valued as highly. They aren't so good for the household. They want to have a say in everything. They are spoiled,” explains the father of 13 year-old Christina, whose underage wedding ceremony was interrupted by a police raid. “An educated girl is worth no more than 5 cows. I won’t get a good price for my daughter after she finishes school. I'd be lucky if I get 5 cows for her.”

Leokodia, 16, lives in a shelter housing 150 girls who have escaped from child marriages - many of them after years of abuse.

“My sister was married to a man from my village. She's very hard-working, so that man asked if she had a younger sister. He saw the way she worked, the way she treated people, how she got along with everyone. That's why he decided to marry me,” she says. “I was only 14, and he was 36.”

But things quickly turned sour.

“My daughter couldn’t stand being humiliated by her husband. He beat and mistreated her. So she came back home with her child,” explains her mother, who now looks after her granddaughter, while Leokodia completes her education at the shelter.

“All my memories of marriage are pretty awful. If I ever meet another guy. I am afraid it might all repeat itself and I'll be hurt once again, so I don't think I'll ever re-marry,” explains Leokodia.

And the dowry?

“As for the cows, we sold them to pay for family expenses and my son's wedding,” Leokodia’s mother tells the crew.

In June 2016 the High Court of Tanzania increased the marrying age for women to 18, up from 14, and imposed jail terms of up to 30 years on men who marry or impregnate girls below that age, in what HRW termed a “crucial step forward” for child and women’s rights.

But Paolo, an activist who recently lost three teeth after trying to break up an underage wedding, says that while the law provides welcome support, no progress can be achieved without a change in mindsets, and advancing from an economic system where families depend on each other for survival.

“When I tell them they need to educate their girls, they don't get it. Cows are more important to them. I report these marriages to raise awareness, and denounce early weddings. Telling them doesn’t work, more serious measures are needed,” he said to the RT crew.

“I try to explain by saying: ‘I’m able to build a house. Because I didn't trade my daughter for cows but gave her an education. Now she's working for the police, making good money, and helping me build a house.’”