Isatou Diallo liked being part of what she called “the movement.” It was a group of women who
went door to door in their community in the West African country of Guinea to warn of the dangers of female genital excision. Isatou says she was left emotionally and physically scarred after undergoing excision as a teenager. In addition, she says, many young women and girls died in her community from hemorrhage and infection as a result of the practice.
Isatou’s teenage daughter, Kadijha, was a good student and wanted to be like her mother and pursue a career. Isatou worked in a lab, although her education was cut short by a forced early marriage. Kadijha says she came home from school one day and overheard a conversation among her aunts and made the unpleasant discovery that she, too, was about to be forced to give up school and become a bride.
“In Guinea, when you get married, the husband goes to work and the wife needs to stay home, take care of the kids and cook and I’m not with that, you know, because my mom already went to school. And I was trying to be like her because in the family she’s the only wife who went to school, and I see the way she treated her kids and the way the other women treat their kids – it’s not the same. It’s totally different,” says Kadijha.
The United Nations Children’s Fund says stunted education and forced early marriage have long lasting consequences for women. UNICEF notes such girls often fail to develop a strong sense of self, are more likely to be sexually abused, are more likely to die in labor and are more vulnerable if they are widowed or abandoned. Isatou’s husband, Mamadou Bah, left school after 10 years to mine diamonds and initially did well. But he fell on hard times, along with others as the Guinea economy deteriorated under an authoritarian government that human rights groups accuse of corruption and mismanagement. Isatou says her husband had already accepted a dowry from Kadijha’s suitor, a wealthy man in his 60s who had three wives.
Polygamy is common in Africa. Isatou says she knew nothing of the marriage plans until Kadijha told her. She then confronted her husband about the marriage and the prospect of genital excision. But Mr. Bah says his decision was made. And both Isatou and Kadijha say they felt the weight of it through beatings. “It is in fact true. Where we’re from in Africa the women can’t be in the right. They can’t be in the right at all. When I say that my daughter doesn’t go to school and my wife says, ‘No, she has to go to school,’ I beat her. My uncle and my aunts beat the girl and were telling her never to leave for her whole life. We beat them savagely,” says Mr. Bah. Isatou says the family accused her of adopting Western ideals and acting superior.
“It wasn’t that. It was just I didn’t want my children to go through the same thing that I did, and that’s why I preferred to protect them in my way.” But Kadijha says the family did not give up on the marriage plan easily, especially her aunts.
“They said they already took the dowry, they already fixed the dates and everything. I was like, no I’m not with that because my mom does not agree. And I need to go to college. And then my other sisters but with different moms say: we stopped by middle school and didn’t even get into high school. So why you trying to go to college or whatever? We are all the same, so you have to get married right now. By the time I say no, one sister of my dad she came in and smacked me on my face,” says Kadijha. She adds her aunts whipped her with a wire and broke a bottle over her head. Blood streamed down her face.
Her mother rushed her to the hospital in a taxi. Isatou says she then sought police protection. “I said that my husband said he’ll kill me if I don’t agree to give my daughter over to marry. They said relax, it’s a family problem. Go and fix it between the two of you. It’s not a matter for the police.”
Authorities in many African countries are reluctant to get involved in domestic disputes, and
there is little legal recourse available to those who report abuse. Kadijha says after the fight her father, step sisters, aunts and stepmothers refused to speak to her and denied her food. But she says her mother made sure she was fed and cared for. In the meantime, Isatou came to a life-altering conclusion: it was time to go. She used her savings and sold her jewelry to buy plane tickets for herself and her three daughters. They sought asylum in the United States.
*That was the second of a two-part series that examines African gender issues. You can read the series and learn more about African gender issues online at www.voanews.com. At the request of those interviewed for this story, the names have been changed.