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Why you should stand up for girls' rights

More than 90 percent of countries around the globe have laws that discriminate against women.

More than 90 percent of countries around the globe have laws that discriminate against women. My homeland, Tanzania, is one of them.

As Global Citizens, we have the power to change this. Not only girls and women must be courageous to demand their rights. Boys and men need to break stereotypes and stand up for gender equality.

When I was in high school in Arusha, Tanzania, issues of gender equality, and girls and women’s empowerment made no sense to me. It was not part of our culture. But then I realized how many young girls are suffering--forced to marry far too young, often to men more than twice their age. One third of all girls in Tanzania, for example, were married before age 18, according to a recent study.

One problem is: The law is too weak to protect them. Parental consent or a court order can allow girls as young as 14 to marry. They also miss out on education, since they cannot enroll in public school if they are pregnant. Some communities also continue harmful social practices, including female genital mutilation (FGM).

I wanted to stand up for girls trapped by these harsh conditions. So I joined Youth For Change, an international effort to advance girls’ rights. It’s like they say: Boys and men need to stand for girls’ rights because it’s for human rights.

Earlier this year, for example, I met a 15 year-old girl, Maria Augustino (all names have been changed) at a Youth For Change event. She told me that she fled her small village in northern Tanzania when she was 12, afraid she would be compelled to undergo female genital mutilation. She was also terrified of early forced marriage. She managed to escape to relatives in Dar es Salaam, a large, cosmopolitan city.

My friend Muhani,* now 16, also confronted a dire situation. When she was 13, she defied her father and said she would never undergo the “custom” of genital mutilation. She was beaten so severely that one of her eyes could no longer see properly.

“Home,” she told me, near tears, “was not a safe place for me."

The two girls’ testimonies show what life is like for hundreds and thousands of girls in my country. They represent, however, the few who have been able to courageously stand up for their rights.

As Global Citizens, we must all support girls like Maria and Muhani and stop oppression of young women. We need to stand together and tell governments to #levelthelaw.

Governments must be held accountable to their commitments. Tanzania, for example, has already ratified international pacts that explicitly condemn child marriage and FGM, including theConvention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, theU.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child and, andThe Maputo Protocol on the rights of women in Africa.

In 1998, Tanzania also enacted theSexual Offences (Special Provision) Act. This law makes FGM a punishable offense, with up to 15 years imprisonment and fines. It criminalizes rape, sexual exploitation of children and ‘sets the age of sexual consent at 18’. Yet, this all conflicts with the nation’s 1971 Law of Marriage Act--which allows marriage as young as 14.

With Youth For Change and Global Citizen, a lot of noise is being made, and thousands of actions have been taken to press Tanzania’s government to honor its laws and end child marriage.

The government has clearly heard our voices. Now our leaders must act.