(WOMENSENEWS)--We were at the end of our lively visit to the Kaya Girls Center, and most of the students had left to start their rainy season holiday. The girls had completed their first year in secondary school and they were happy to be going home.
The sisters brought us some more cold water while we waited inside for our chaperones from Plan International. I held the bottle to my face and let the condensation drip down my arm; it was way too hot to care how I looked. Monsieur Yonli, the head sister, and the school director were outside engaged in an urgent conversation, while a beautiful girl in a bright red shirt quietly stood on the edge of the porch looking down at the ground. It was clear they were talking about her. After about 30 minutes of tense conversation, Monsieur Yonli came back inside to retrieve us.
"Do you mind if I ask what the commotion was about?" I tentatively asked, expecting him to say it was nothing. Monsieur Yonli sighed, shook his head, and said, "We have a student whose family wants to marry her off while she's still just a child. She's only 13."
It was the first time the Kaya Girls Center had this problem on their hands since it was their first year in operation. But the faculty and administrators were familiar with the issue since 61 percent of rural girls in Burkina Faso are married before they reach 17, the age when they would finish secondary school if they're lucky enough to be in school. In the developing world generally, 1-in-3 girls will be married before she turns 18. Rural girls are twice as likely as urban girls to get married young, and girls from families in poverty are married as children at three times the rate of their higher income peers.
The Plan International team and Kaya Girls Center teachers had done their best to talk with the girls and their families about early marriage. When the school opened, Monsieur Yonli came to visit often, and before the first holiday chatted with the girls about the issue of child marriage. He told them that they should--and could--refuse to marry anyone they didn't want to marry. They could even say no to their parents if they suggested it. Later that school year, the female governor of the province also talked to the girls and advised them not to get married young. She told them that marriage before age 17 was illegal and she didn't want to see it happening in her part of the country.
The girl in the red shirt came forward a few days before our visit and told the director about her problem. The director enlisted Monsieur Yonli's help in deciding what to do. They thought the best course of action would be for the girl to stay at the school that night with the sisters; they did not want to risk someone hiding her from them before they could reach the family. Plan International would send a social worker and a child marriage specialist to the girl's home to try to comprehend the circumstances and know what the parents were thinking.
"We need to first understand the family's perspectives and issues before we can take any action," Monsieur Yonli said wisely. "We don't know what agreements they may have made with another family, perhaps even before the girl was born."
A Delicate Affair
Intervening to stop a child marriage is a delicate affair. If you report the impending marriage to the authorities, the police may come and take the parents away, which will only create more problems for the girl. If the parents are aware that outsiders might intercede, they may send the child away to another village or rush ahead with the marriage. Most often, there is no time to help. Discussion of early marriage is taboo, so no one is aware until after it happens. Girls are often just taken against their will, dressed up as brides and made into wives in a single day.
Child marriage is another incredibly widespread, but ignored, form of violence. Marriage usually means the end of schooling and the beginning of child-bearing. Pregnancies in early adolescence are very risky. Miscarriage, obstructed labor, postpartum hemorrhage and pregnancy-related high blood pressure are much more common for girls whose bodies are not ready for babies. Obstetric fistulas are an awful result when babies become stuck in the slim hips of a young mother during labor. The extended pressure kills the pelvic tissue, which then atrophies, leaving these young women with no bladder or bowel control. They are rejected by their husbands and families and become destitute castoffs.
"This work is hard," Monsieur Yonli stated flatly. "You have to try your best to fix the individual situations you can. But if you can't change it, you really have to let it go and move on. For every girl that we find out about, there's a hundred more that we don't. There's just no shortcut--you've got to do the public education and social norm change. We have to fix the problem at the systemic level. It's not easy."
My last update from Plan International Burkina in the winter of 2013 was that something had been worked out with the family and the girl in the red shirt was in school, working hard on her studies, and probably praying each day that she'll be allowed to grow up before her wedding day.
Ritu Sharma is a leading voice on international women's issues and U.S. foreign policy. She is co-founder of Women Thrive Worldwide, a nonprofit that places the concerns of women and girls living in poverty at the forefront of U.S. international assistance. She lives in Annapolis, Md.
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