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Senegalese Villages Fight Against Forced Child Marriage


In parts of rural Africa, some parents force their daughters to marry as young as eight-years-old. This is so there is no chance the girls can get pregnant before marriage, and ruin the families' honor. Other times, it is to secure the bond between two families. Though illegal, this practice is hard to prosecute because the families often live in remote areas far from any courts of justice. But a number of village leaders in West Africa are working to end this tradition with the help of women who were forced to marry young. Phuong Tran has this report from border villages in Senegal near the Mauritanian border.

Katote is a desert village between the town of Ourossogui, Senegal and the border of Mauritania. The only way to reach it is a sharp left turn from the main paved road onto sand sparsely dotted for kilometers with cactus plants, faint tire tracks, and the occasional school child hiking to a classroom in a different village.

This is where the almost 40-year-old Aissate Ndiaye Camara lives. It was here that her parents introduced her to the man who they said was her husband when she was eight-years-old.

Speaking in her native language of Pular, Camara said she had no idea she was being married to her older cousin. She says she was scared and hid from him for days by sleeping out in the livestock shed with the animals.

Her parents threatened bad spirits would find her if she did not return to her speak with her new husband.

In the mostly Pular community of northeast Senegal, the tradition is for the child bride to live with her husband's mother so she can learn how to become a proper wife. During this time, the new groom travels, coming back only when his bride is ready to have children.

For Camara, her husband came back 12 years later when she was almost 20.

They now have seven children.

Even though she says she loves her husband and long ago stopped being afraid of him, she does not want other girls to go through the fear, shock and discomfort she says she felt for years.

Camara works with the human rights organization Tostan to educate families about the dangers of forcing children, and especially girls, to marry young.

Its director in the area of Katote is Abou Amel Camara. Abou Camara says families do not know they can risk their daughter's life by forcing them to marry. He says the young brides often have problems, and even die in childbirth. He says some become pregnant as soon as they reach puberty.

Tostan's regional director says village leaders have helped change attitudes about a practice few really questioned until recent years.

Ten kilometers from Katote is Samba Demba Sall, the village chief of Sedo Abass. He says when women started speaking to him about the trauma they felt when married young, he felt a responsibility as guardian of his village.

The village chief led a public ceremony in his village four years ago officially denouncing child marriage. If he hears about a family who is about to marry their child, he meets with them, bringing along a woman who was forced to marry young to talk to the family.

The legal marriage age in Senegal is 18. Many, however, routinely marry younger in this primarily Muslim country where 16 is an accepted age of womanhood.

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