Salay Turay never knew the trauma her 14-year-old niece would face when the girl was promised in marriage to an older man in their village. Turay had been married at 14 to a 34-year old man she didn’t know, in order to pay an uncle’s debt. After falling pregnant and running away, she has joined the ranks of young activists across West Africa who intervene to stop child marriages in their communities.
Niger has the world’s highest prevalence of child marriage, according to the UNICEF, with three in four girls married under the age of 18.
Driven by poverty, religion and insecurity, marrying off girls once they reach puberty or even before is a deeply engrained tradition in much of West and Central Africa, but with detrimental effects on health, education and development.
As leaders from across the region met at a landmark conference in Senegal few days to confront the issue, Gouzaye from Niger and other youth activists across the region also came together to share strategies and ideas.
Now 21, she said she managed to stop her niece’s marriage and those of several friends in Niger.
“I explained the problems I had experienced, and I gave the parents’ numbers to the police,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The authorities threatened legal action if they did not call off the marriages, she said. “Now we’re all in our final year of high school together.”
The legal age of marriage for girls in Niger is 15, with a law proposed but not yet passed to change it to 18.
More and more girls are seeking support, said Niger country director Johnson Bien-Aime of Plan International, which has stopped several marriages in this way.
Having an unmarried teenager in the family is seen as a risk in parts of Africa, because if she flirts with boys, draws attention, or has sex it would bring shame on the family. “Parents say because I am a girl, I can’t go out with friends, I can’t mess around, etc,” said Bah. “So some girls say, ‘I can’t take it anymore. Give me in marriage because I want my freedom.'”
Bah created an association called the Young Girl Leaders’ Club of Guinea, which holds debates and has campaigns to teach girls what marriage entails. People also contact the club to intervene in cases of child marriage, said Bah. She has a police contact whom she calls.
The legal age of marriage in Guinea is 18, but one in two girls is married before that.
Experts say laws against child marriage are rarely enforced, but strategies such as working with religious leaders, improving girls’ access to education, and promoting sexual and maternal health have helped bring down rates.
Girls’ empowerment is part of the solution, said Aminata Gba Kamara, a 19-year-old from Sierra Leone. “Girls in our country need so many things,” she said. “They need psychosocial support, they need counseling. Their esteem is very low.”
Kamara organizes career talks with successful women in schools, encourages girls to do extracurricular activities and helps them figure out how to make use of their talents. In several cases, she has rallied teachers and counselors to help particularly vulnerable girls stay in school.
Monday October 30, 2017.