Although the law forbids it, many girls in Senegal are married before they are 14 years old. For many, it is a tale of woe, as child brides often become pregnant far too early.
Aissata could no longer bear it. Her mother suffered too much and did not leave the house anymore. There was too much shame because their daughter had been raped and lost her virginity. "When the family told me they had found a man for me, I believed everything would be all right," says Aissata. She was not yet 14 when she was married off. But it did not go well. Child marriages are widespread in West Africa. One in three girls in Aissata's native Senegal becomes pregnant before the age of 18. Married on her birthday.
Baby born secretly
Clothes that are too loose shiver on her petite body. Aissata does not want her full name mentioned. Her almond eyes with long eyelashes stare into space. Tears roll down 17-year-old's cheeks. The beginning of her tale of woe must be told by Khady Badio of the "Maison Rose" in the capital Dakar, the only women's shelter in Senegal: Aissata became pregnant after being raped, but kept this a secret and gave birth to the baby alone. But the child died, and the family found the baby's body.
The shame was great. Sex before marriage is frowned upon in Senegal. For Aissata, marriage was the only way to get back into society – even for her family. Similar motives are shared by parents who marry off their daughters very young for fear they will become sexually active at an early age and lose their virginity.
Early marriages are part of the tradition
But there are also economic and social reasons for child marriages. Lawyer Fatou Faye, 25, cites the Fulbe tradition as an example. They were once nomads who used early marriages as a means for connections within the clan and with the outside world. They hold on to this tradition in the city as well.
"My friend left school before her exams. Her family had married her off. She was eleven," says Faye. But the girlfriend's parents saw it as a stroke of luck. "The husband's family was prestigious, the mayor and all the important traders belong to it," says Faye.
Family law sets marriage age
With her association AJASS, the lawyer organizes education in schools: "Our aim is to empower girls. When they find out they are going to be married, they should confide it to their friends and teachers. If it's public, then we can act: Talk to the families and remind them that the law forbids it."
The family law sets the age of marriage, which is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. But Senegal is a signatory to a number of international conventions that generally prohibit marriages before age 18. Faye also talks to the traditional and religious leaders who marry the couples: "We explain to them that child marriages mean early pregnancies, and those are dangerous for the girls."
Danger to life for mothers under 15
Under the age of 15, mothers are five times more likely than average to die in childbirth. Vaginal fistula is more common, and the baby's chance of survival is also lower. – Health arguments are the best way to convince religious authorities, Faye knows. In Senegal, more than 90 percent of the 15 million inhabitants are Muslims. But there are also other problems when very young girls enter into marriage with much older men. Aissata, for example, found no peace after her marriage. Her husband was impotent, and when she revealed this to her mother-in-law, she became furious. "She told me I was already depraved and trying to damage her son's reputation," she recounts.
Aissata has had enough of men
The daily teasing was unbearable. The girl wanted to return to her village. A family friend gave her the money – and got her pregnant. Then the odyssey continued. Aissata was sent to live with an aunt in Dakar, but the uncle considered her a disgrace and did not want her in the house. With her child, Aissata eventually found refuge at the Maison Rose women's shelter in Dakar. The young girl does not want to know anything more about men for the time being. "I only want one thing – to work," Aissata affirms. Her family, however, does not give up and is always looking for new marriage candidates for her.