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Senegalese children demonstrating for the right to education  
Senegalese children demonstrating for the right to education

Is Senegal outgrowing child marriage?

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When Ibrahima Niasse, an imam in Dakar, spoke out against child marriage, his ideas weren’t palatable to everyone.

“I used to resist change, but now I’m convinced that this practice is indeed evil and has nothing to do with Islam,” Niasse told IPS. “My approach is easy and very friendly, it starts like a family visit and a simple chat, and later we start debating it.”

Niasse is among a growing number of people Senegal calling for the abandonment of early marriage, according to Tostan International, a human rights NGO operating in the country.

Asked how his message was being received, Niasse said, “So far, so good. Inshallah, one day [the people] will change [their minds about child marriage].”

Take Abdoulaye Ba. The head of his family told IPS that he had had “big plans” for his daughters aged 12, 14 and 17. But now he is realizing it might not be the right thing for his children.

From time to time, he talks about the issue with Niasse, who is his imam. “I think the more we talk and he puts his arguments on the table, the more I begin to understand that whatever reasons we have for pushing our kids to wed at an early age, they are nothing but a myth,” said Ba.

Will others follow?
Marriage before age 18 is common practice in Senegal. Sixteen percent of young women get married and give birth before reaching age 15, according to a recent report by Senegal’s National Agency of Statistics and Demography.

The ‘2010 USAID-Senegal Gender Assessment’ report, published in April 2012, states that the country ranks 27th out of 68 countries surveyed in terms of girls marrying before the age of 18.

By now, some 427 communities in southern Senegal have abandoned the practice, according to Tostan International. Still, more people like Niasse are needed to spread the message.

“Because imams are already respected leaders in their communities, and are sought after for advice, they are already well placed to spark positive change in their community,” Amy Fairbairn, a spokesperson for the organization, told IPS. “We find that when women, men, children, community and religious leaders learn about human rights and the rights of all the members of their communities, they lead their own social change.”

In addition to being a human rights abuse, child marriage constitutes a grave threat to young girls’ lives, health and future prospects, according to the 2012 report ‘Marrying too Young – End Child Marriage’ released by the United Nations Population Fund.

Teen bride
Leela (name changed to protect her identity) is a case in point. At only 18, she has been married for two years and has a one-year-old child. Unable to go to school and forced into an early marriage by her family, she feels trapped.

“I don’t like this so-called marriage. But I have no choice, since my parents forced me to marry this older man, who happens to be the son of my aunt. I have no formal education and therefore no future,” she told IPS. “I feel imprisoned."

She said her husband prohibited her from befriending female peers in their area, telling her that the city’s unmarried women are “prostitutes and devils who can easily poison her mind”.

What’s the fuss?
But not everyone is convinced early marriage is wrong. Aissatou Diakhate, 62, was 15 when she married her cousin.

“What’s the fuss about this so-called child marriage? This is our tradition and culture – something we inherited from our forefathers and which we are merely practicing,” Diakhate told IPS. “Girls nowadays wear mini-skirts and run after boys, and the next thing, a girl will tell her mother that she is pregnant or infected by some odious disease. It’s better to give her in marriage to someone older who will take care of her and guide her to the way of religion before she shames her parents, and brings dishonour to the family. Is that a sin? We need to be left alone.”

Fairbairn said that consensus to abandon child marriage takes time to build across social networks and must be community-led. Tostan, for one, encourages community members to make a public declaration abandoning early marriage.

“In areas where the decision to abandon child-slash-forced marriage is met with resistance, communities organize outreach with all stakeholders until consensus is reached.”

Niasse is optimistic that more people will change their minds about early marriage, but he is realistic, too. He says: “This practice has been in our country for many decades, it won’t go away overnight. It will take time.”

Originally published by IPS