Source: AllAfrica
It is discouraging and annoying to be forced to listen to government functionaries making excuses for inaction in promoting and upholding human rights and more so when such excuses are unsubstantiated or not well researched.

Listening to the Principal Secretary of the Ministry of Community Development, Gender and Children Development recently one wonders if the Ministry clearly understands its mandate in advancing gender equality.

Or, if government understands its mandate in the protection of the rights of women as an integral focus of promoting the welfare of society.

Former First Lady of South Africa, Ms Gracia Machel was in the country to promote a campaign that is now global against child marriages, among other women rights issues.

The ministry confirmed what Tanzania Media Women Organisation (TAMWA), Women Legal Aid Centre (WLAC) and other human rights organisations have been demanding for the Law of Marriage Act to be amended especially problematic provisions that need to be brought in line with national plans and priorities as well as international human rights obligations.

As Tanzania prepares to submit its periodic report before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women on legislative, judicial, administrative or other measures that they have adopted nationally to enhance and protect women's rights in civil, political, economic, social and cultural fields as is required by the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) the pronouncement made by the Principal Secretary in the Ministry of Community Development Gender and Children, Ms Ana Maenda will effectively mean that once again Tanzania will fail to meet its obligation to review and reform laws that discriminate against women either directly or in directly.

Established in 1982, the Committeeon the Elimination of Discrimination against Women monitors progress made by member States who are parties to the CEDAW and makes recommendations on any issue affecting women to which it believes states parties should devote more attention.

Child marriages is presently allowed in the Law of Marriage Act since the minimum age of marriage is 15 years for girls and in some circumstances a girl of 14 can be allowed to marry.

It is one of the issues the CEDAW Committee has indicated as needing of reforms in past reviews. The Principal Secretary in the Ministry, Ana Maenda revealed that the Ministry tabled proposals to government to review the LMA over 10 years ago but the process has stalled.

In actual fact proposals for a more egalitarian legal framework in Tanzania began in the early 80's with not just the LMA but also with other discriminatory provisions such as the Law of Succession, the Customary Declaration Orders and the Law of Marriage Act.

In addition to the Ministry of the Tanzania Law Reform Commission (and in some respects the Commission of Human Rights and Good Governance) has also tabled proposals for amending discriminatory laws.

Most discriminatory laws directly target women but because discrimination affects everyone, families and communities suffer from the impact of pervasive and persistent discriminatory provisions and practices.

But the government is yet to act and it has not fully divulged the difficulty in changing an unequal marriage and gender regime in operation in Tanzania. Ms Maenda indicated that one of the problems in amending the laws is the fact that Tanzania is made up of different groups.

In her experience law reforms require that all groups are in agreement as to the changes that are to be proposed. The stalling of the proposals indicates that such agreement has not been achieved inside government where the reports and proposals are lodged and perhaps in those groups where resistance is at itshighest.

I am,however, at a loss at such excuses for the state to meet its obligations. Inevitably one of the communities believed to oppose the idea of equality between men and women in matrimonial relations is the Muslim community. Some figures in the Muslim community have come out in strong opposition.

In other instances government has been too scared or over cautious about whet the Muslim community will say over such changes. Such an approach is regrettable as it confirms that in the matter of women's rights the government is prepared to compromise the same over pleasing powerful figures in the community instead of advocating for the powerless.

In Islamic law such an approach is called reforming society or laws on the basis of Maslaha or public interest. This in itself should be a strong enough reason to advocate for changes in the Marriage Code.

Importantly, the Union government should borrow a leaf from Zanzibar in terms how it has used Maslaha and the state interest in furthering the rights of women.

The Late Abeid Amanni Karume undertook various measures to ensure that women are availed opportunities in the different realms envisaged under CEDAW. In creating the new Zanzibar citizen, he was never dissuaded by the opinions of the religious establishment but rather by the public interest.

Because of his courage women who studied during his reign or the aftermath of his reign attained high level of school completion rates and had an education attainment of at least form IV.

One way he achieved this was by compelling any man who wanted to marry a girl or young woman who had not completed compulsory education was to sign an undertaking in the local party branch that he would not interfere with her academic pursuit because doing so would be contravening the nationalist project of the new Zanzibar citizen post-Revolution.

The government enforced this requirement unfailingly. During Karume's time there was a sharp increase of women from all backgrounds in the civil service as well as in community affairs.

Karume also ensured that the laws in Zanzibar reflected his intention in building an egalitarian society for all. For instance,one area he reformed was that of land acquisition and allocation. He instituted the three acre scheme where citizens of Zanzibar were granted land for productive activities and he made sure that the interests of the wife (and not the children) were recognised because the married couple shared common interests.

Thus, the wife upon the death of her husband was entitled to remain and use the land for upkeep. The right of inheritance of 3 acre plots was not automatic.

This is radically different from the approach deployed by other advocates where they want the interests of the children to override those of the mother in property matters subject of a matrimonial dispute.

I would expect that the Ministry does its homework on matters that are critical for the welfare of all Tanzanians. Cheap explanation on why government has failed to act is not what is envisaged in the Tanzanian constitution or in international instruments.

If anything it signals government complicity in perpetuating the violation of the rights of women and children, including by endorsing child marriages contrary to its own laws.

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