So common are the practices of abduction, rape and forced marriage of girls in northern Tanzania that a single word is used to encapsulate them all: kupura. It is a word used by people from the Sukuma tribe to describe the snatching of girls in broad daylight as they walk to school; a three-syllabled euphemism that downplays their long-term physical and sexual abuse.
And yet here in the region of Shinyanga, the practice of kupura is validated by the oft-recited motto of Sukuma men: alcohol, meat and vagina.
“This slogan is in their blood and a way of life,” says Revocatus Itendelebanya. “These are the three things they feel entitled to as men.”
Itendelebanya, the legal and gender officer for the local NGO, Agape, says this sense of entitlement, in what is a perennially patriarchal society, also explains why passers-by don’t intervene when they witness an abduction.
“When a Sukuma man is attracted to a girl he will start asking people where she lives, and what her routine is,” explains Itendelebanya.
“Once he finds out these details he might wait for her near the borehole – or whatever he thinks is the best place to get that girl – and then grab her.”
Kupura is so prevalent in the region that when a girl disappears, her parents will suspect what has happened. But rather than calling the police, they will seek the man out not to rescue their child, but to negotiate the dowry – or bride price – in cattle.
For daughters are sadly seen as a short-term investment for poor, rural households – cash cows that can boost a family’s financial position at the expense of a girl’s schooling and wellbeing.
Such is the value placed on a girl’s head that Itendelebanya says parents will take their daughters to a witch-doctor if they are not attracting any suitors.
The ensuing samba ritual involves cutting cruciform nicks into the girl’s chest and hands with a razor to not only help cleanse her of her bad luck, but to make her more attractive to older men.
And if ever there was a poster child to highlight the pernicious effects of child marriage, it’s Grace Masanja.
“Bitterness still fills my heart when I look at them,” she says, pointing at the cows grazing at the rear of her family’s compound. For Grace they are a daily reminder of how she was treated like cattle, a commodity to be bought and sold.
“But given what I went through, I sometimes wish I had been born a cow,” she whispers.
Her father had bartered a dozen cattle for his daughter but, despite daily beatings with sticks and her father’s belt, she still refused to marry the older man.
But a deal had been made; a dowry had been paid.
And so it was that Grace was abducted on motorbike by her betrothed early one morning – all with the complicity of her father.
That night, and every day for the next 11 months, she was raped and beaten.
She was only 12.
“That day felt like the end of everything,” Grace recalls, glancing again at the cattle.
A country of contradictions
When it comes to child marriage, Tanzania was until very recently a country of contradictions.
The 1971 Marriage Act set the minimum age of marriage for girls at 15 with parental consent – but a girl of 14 could wed where judicial approval was given.
And while the 2009 Child Act did not expressly outlaw child marriage, it did define a child as a person under the age of 18, stating that a parent should “protect the child from neglect, discrimination, violence, abuse, exposure to physical and moral hazards and oppression”.
This contradictory legal Venn diagram was further obfuscated by the Local Customary Law of 1963, which allowed Tanzania’s many ethnic groups to adhere to their customs and traditions.
The Tanzanian government had long made noises about a constitutional review process to address these conflicting laws, but last year’s presidential election campaign, in addition to a lack of consensus in community surveys, had served to stall any political momentum on the issue.
Only in July 2016 did the government finally ban child marriage outright – but will it actually make a difference?
Female genital mutilation was outlawed in Tanzania in 1998, and yet a 2010 government survey found that in remote parts of the Mara region, more than 40 percent of girls and women had been cut.
While it is true that Tanzania does not rank among the countries with the highest rates of child marriage, with four out of 10 girls being married before their 18th birthdays, it seems to be a problem that is not going away.
And this national average masks more disturbing regional trends in the vast East African country.
In the Shinyanga region, more than 59 percent of girls like Grace – some of them as young as nine – are forced into child marriages.
Itendelebanya believes that the actual figure is concealed by the remoteness of many rural communities, as well as widespread reports of corrupt police and court officials burying cases in return for bribes by family members.
The legal and gender officer says there have been cases of police being paid to ignore some early marriages in villages, to lose crucial evidence, and to even help forge the incriminating birth certificates of child brides.
“Police entertain corruption because they benefit from it,” claims Itendelebanya. “And police see NGOs like Agape as preventing the flow of money into their pockets.”
But Superintendent Pili Simon Misungwi, who heads the gender desk at the Shinyanga district police station, dismisses any claims of wrongdoing by her staff.
In 2008, the Tanzanian government requested that every police station have such a specialist unit, with trained personnel who could handle cases of gender-based violence and child abuse across the country.
“I can’t deny that corruption does exist because it’s mostly done in private,” she says. “But I also can’t say that 100 percent of all cases are delayed because of corruption.”
“For example, the poverty-stricken parents of a victim may accept financial compensation from the perpetrator’s family, which would lead to the adjournment of a case.”
Misungwi says it’s also not uncommon for a child bride’s parents to scupper investigations.
“A girl’s parents may be offered two, three or five cows by the husband’s family to derail the case,” she says. “And because life is hard for these people, they often take the money.
“The police may think the family is cooperating with them, but then when the time comes to testify they tell us the girl is sick, in another village, or even dead.”
Misungwi stresses that her officers were hired because of their high moral standing, and then provided with the necessary training.
“And we provide people with a confidential environment where they can have a one-on-one conversation in private rooms where others cannot listen,” she adds.
But what the superintendent says, and what actually happens in her absence, appear to be two different things.
Before Misungwi arrives at the station, a young mother sits in the main office as she tells a police officer about the regular sexual assaults she endures at the hands of her husband – the private rooms sit empty.
The officer takes no notes, his attention not on the mother, but on the Nigerian soap opera blasting from the television set in the corner of the room.
Other staff members sit nearby, staring into space, periodically checking their phones for text messages.
Meanwhile incidents related to child marriage have doubled over the past two years.
When staff compile a list of these they do not use the Swahili terms, instead opting for the English equivalents, to mitigate the shocking nature of the crimes.
Kubaka is replaced with rape, kulawiti is replaced with sodomy, kumpa mimba mwanafunzi is replaced with child pregnancy.
And Misungwi says it is the lack of police resources, rather than corruption, that has contributed to the prevalence of child marriage in the region.
“When the government is giving budgets to ministries like Home Affairs, they don’t have a separate pot of money for the police gender desk,” she says.
As a result, her unit has to rely on using one of the station’s three vehicles to reach remote villages where child marriages have been reported to them – but these are often already being used for routine police business.
“And the witnesses may live very far in the villages and can’t afford to come to town to do a follow-up interview,” says Misungwi. “As a result we often can’t reach a conclusion on a case.”
The curious case of Agnes Dotto
“There can be no secrets in the villages.” So says Paulo Kuyi, who is fighting the ground war against child marriage in the nearby town of Muchambi.
The 53-year-old activist acts as a primitive early warning system for the NGO Agape, which in turn tips off the local police force.
Last September, it was the sudden appearance of 16 cows in a family’s compound that triggered alarm bells for Kuyi. And he knew the poor family had a 13-year-old daughter, Agnes Dotto.
“When a dowry has been paid a feast is arranged before the wedding,” Kuyi explains. “The family now has cows coming into their clan and they want to celebrate and invite other villagers.”
Ten days later, thanks to Kuyi’s regular updates by phone, police and Agape staff raided the wedding ceremony.
The husband-to-be was arrested and taken to the local police station in Maganzo, where he should have remained until his case went to trial.
The next day the man walked free; neither he nor Agnes has been seen since.
Kuyi says that he saw a Maganzo police officer leaving a late-night meeting with village leaders.
“These leaders were paid by Agnes’ parents to help arrange the marriage,” he claims. “It was because of that complicity they paid a police officer to release the perpetrator.”
These are the “meanders” – as Itendelebanya euphemistically calls them – that child marriage cases take on their way to the courts.
Three months on, the police tell the legal officer that they are no closer to finding Agnes or the man.
Assistant Superintendent Meshack Sumuni says the village leaders and the girl’s parents have refused to cooperate.
“And we don’t have the resources to be more proactive in our investigations,” he says. “The Tanzanian government provides no specific budget for gender-desk teams, which means we often rely on NGOs for assistance.”
The lack of police resources is felt even more keenly here than in Shinyanga.
Roads are regularly washed out in the rainy season, the unit has no dedicated car pool of its own, and their office is bereft of furniture or computer equipment and has a leaking roof, which in the past has led to important legal documents being damaged.
“So the gender desk staff feel like they have been given this role as a punishment,” says Sumuni. “So this in turn affects their motivation to chase down reports of child marriage and related cases of abuse.”
Back in the village, where there can be no secrets, it is common knowledge that Kuyi is the one reporting cases of child marriage to the police.
Resentful of the potential loss of income that marrying off their daughters can generate, villagers have threatened to lock the activist in his hut and burn it down.
Kuyi says that he doesn’t care; he is an old man and he has nothing left to fear.
But what worries him are what advances in technology mean for future child marriages going undetected by him.
He has heard rumours that a dowry has already been paid for Agnes’ sister – but by mobile money transfer, and not cattle.
This shift from the traditional, physical form of payment means Kuyi can no longer be visually tipped off about an impending marriage.
“Many other activists are now reluctant to report cases to the police,” Kuyi says. “They’ve been intimidated by death threats, or demoralised when they see only a few cases actually go to court.”
Picking up the pieces
Only through death has Grace Masanja clawed back something resembling a life.
After physically and sexually abusing her for 11 months, her husband was killed in a motorbike accident.
Grace, now 13, was filled not with joy, but sorrow.
The man who had raped and beaten her for the better part of a year was dead – but she now has a child to take care of, and no income.
Grace and her child Mathias are at her family’s home, where she and her father live out an uneasy truce.
After hearing an announcement on the radio, she applied to enrol on one of Agape’s vocational skills courses. Each year, the organisation provides dozens of girls with an opportunity to learn a trade so that they can become breadwinners in their own right.
The majority of the girls opt for tailoring classes, but others want to take the courses in welding and electrical engineering – professions that challenge the patriarchal and gendered stereotypes so ingrained in Tanzania’s communities.
It is also hoped that the lure of this additional income will lessen the short-term appeal of a dowry to parents.
Grace’s father, Kurwa Masanja, says that he now regrets what he did to his daughter.
“It was Sukuma tradition that forced me to have Grace married when she finished primary school,” says Kurwa. “When she came back I apologised, and I hope now that we can slowly become father and daughter again.
“I cannot repeat this mistake because when Grace came back, she told us what had happened to her.”
But Grace has her doubts, and fears for her four-year-old sister Birha.
“My father has only six of the cows left from my dowry,” she says. “He sold the others to build a second home.”
“What do you think he will do when the others have gone, and he is poor again?”
This research was conducted with the support of the ‘International Development Reporting Fellowship’ (http://www.akfc.ca/en/get-involved/reporting-fellowship), a joint programme of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada and the Canadian Association of Journalists.