Q+A: On the frontlines of Senegal’s child marriage battle

Posted on 8 August 2011


03 Aug 2011 10:44
Source: trustlaw // George Fominyen

Fatou Diakhate, who was married at 13 years and now campaigns for an end to child marriage, Keur Issa, Senegal, July 5, 2011./TRUSTLAW/George Fominyen

This story is part of a TrustLaw special report on child marriage

By George Fominyen

BALIGA, Senegal (TrustLaw) – Is it possible to end child marriage in rural West Africa where traditional and religious practices run deep?

An army of women, moving from village to village in Senegal has successfully raised awareness of the negative impact of forced early marriages on young girls.

Their work, based on an approach devised by Tostan – a Senegal-based non-governmental organisation – has led hundreds of communities to abandon the practice.

TrustLaw spoke to two of these local anti-child marriage campaigners about their work. They are: Astou Gueye, one of the wives of the chief of Baliga village who is also president of the village women’s group; and Maimouna Diallo, a widow, and member of the Keur Issa women’s community mobilisation group.

What motivated you to campaign against child marriage?

Maimouna Diallo: When I left the village (Keur Issa) to join my (late) husband in the Kaolack region, I noticed that the practice of child marriage was very rampant there. Girls as young as 12 and 13 were married without their consent.

A parent would wake up one morning and say to his daughter that “I have given your hand in marriage to so and so person”.

I noticed that many of the girls were having all sorts of health problems because of such marriages. That is why when I returned to Keur Issa, after my husband’s death, I joined the group working to help sensitise people to abandon this practice.

Astou Gueye: Tostan opened a literacy class here in the village and taught women about many things including the consequences of the practice of child marriage. After we finished the course, I contacted Tostan to say I would like to join their teams that go from village to village to sensitise communities about harmful practices.

I also believe it is a noble task to be able to help people move from a practice that could be disastrous to their health.

What are the challenges you face in this work?

Maimouna Diallo: It is a really challenging task. We speak to people who sometimes do not agree with our point of view on early marriages. We have to be patient and persistent. If we speak to a community in a gathering, we identify the people who are unhappy that we are advocating that they abandon child marriages and target them for one-to-one conversations where we try explaining again and again why it is necessary to change.

In the beginning it was really tough because there were many people who were not ready to change. But since the people decided as a community to abandon the practice of child marriage our work is easier and we have greater success.

Astou Gueye: I don’t have problems in the sensitisation work I am doing. In my village there are no more child marriages and the people have been aware that this practice is not good for young girls. When I travel to other villages the key is to understand the tradition and culture and not try to be imposing.

Sometimes we can be chased out of a village but we return and present the issue as an exchange of views. At the end, people understand that we are doing it for their good.

Afterwards when I return to such villages, you would see many people rushing towards me to present their problems so that together we can find solutions.