Saving the Burkinabe teen brides

It is an article of faith in development circles that assisting girls to complete their education — and postponing the age at which they have children — benefits both the girls and the communities they live in.

This truth is proving difficult to entrench in Burkina Faso, however, where early marriages — and, worse still, forced marriages — are often the norm. This is despite a 1990 law that sets the marriage age for girls at 18, and for boys at 22.

Eleven-year-old Sylvie Sawadogo is one of those who narrowly escaped this fate. She lives with nuns at the Kaya Sisters Centre in northern Sanmantinga province: a home that caters for girls who have managed to fend off early marriage.

Similar facilities have been established in Bokin — in the northern Passore province — and the southern town of Kombissiri. Each centre provides shelter to about 50 girls.

Sawadogo, the youngest girl at Kaya Sisters Centre, tends to be shy when asked to recount her story to strangers. But 22-year-old Christine Ouedraogo has no hesitation in explaining what brought her to the home.

Affectionately called “grandma” by the other residents because of her relatively advanced age of 22, she had already been living with her fiancé for three months at the time she came to the centre.

“One day … I heard them whispering that I was about to be taken to my future husband that evening by other members of his family,” Ouedraogo says.

“My intended husband was as old as my father, and they told me I had to cook and bear children for him in order to strengthen the link between his family and mine,” she adds.

Kaya provides a home for about 60 girls with the help of funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Social Affairs and the Catholic Church. The residents learn trades such as weaving and soap-making, as well has how to care for livestock — all this in an effort to help them escape the poverty trap that often leads to forced marriage.

Rinata Sawadogo (16) came to Burkina Faso from Côte d’Ivoire to live with an aunt when her father died. After refusing to pay her school fees, the aunt started searching for a husband for her.

“I remember the day I was sent to the well and was able to escape,” she says.

While national statistics on forced marriage are not available, the UNFPA estimates that a third of all girls aged 18 in Burkina Faso are married. A quarter of the country’s 12-million people are adolescents.

“The causes of premature marriage are linked to cultural issues which loom large in Burkina Faso and force girls to marry very young. This constitutes a problem not only for the girls, but for society as well,” says Genevieve Sue, the UNPFA’s representative in the country.

“Premature marriage limits girls’ opportunities occupationally, and to make their own decisions and lead independent lives. [It] also prevents them from participating fully in the country’s development process and contributing to the reduction of poverty in Burkina,” she adds.

“There is a connection between reproductive health and the fight against poverty.”

Lydie Saloukou, research coordinator at the Population Council — an NGO — describes early marriage as a “social strategy that allows families to ensure they will always have a girl [marriage partner] for their brother or son”.

This makes it difficult, she says, to convince people that it is a woman’s right to choose her own husband. Saloukou believes that inasmuch as programmes to address the problem of early marriage should focus on girls, community involvement is also essential.

“The community itself … must be involved in the awareness training. If not, it will go right back to this practice as soon as we turn our backs,” she notes.

Officials say the phenomenon is just as present in urban areas as in rural ones.

In an effort to combat early marriage, the UNPFA has joined forces with Burkinabe authorities to run awareness programmes in 17 provinces for educating girls about their rights. The programmes appoint “godmothers” who teach girls about the advantages of reproductive health care.

The government also launched a project in 1996 called 1 000 Girls, which involves two years of occupational training for girls aged 14 to 16 from rural areas who have never been to school, or who dropped out. About 84% of the girls who graduated from the programme’s first intake are now employed.

“They don’t earn a lot, but enough to do something, to occupy an important slot in the eyes of their communities and their families. Their opinions on issues are often requested,” says Saloukou.

Some parents have avoided sending girls already promised in marriage to 1 000 Girls, and enrolled their sisters instead. But, the Population Council notes that bringing women who’ve risen to prominent positions on board the programme has helped convince certain parents to “liberate” the daughters who were destined for marriage.

While early wedlock can dramatically reduce a girl’s educational and economic prospects, it also holds health risks. These include the possibility of obstetric fistulas in girls who fall pregnant after being married at a very young age.

The term refers to a condition where the tissue between a girl’s bladder, vagina and rectum is ripped — possibly during an arduous childbirth. It can cause a girl to lose control over the excretion of urine and faeces. This in turn sets the stage for infection — and even death.

A study is under way in Burkina Faso to determine the extent of the problem.

Yacouba Zanre, a veteran of operations to repair 30 fistulas over the past two years, finds himself treating patients between the ages of 13 and 15 who often lose their babies during childbirth.

“The consequences of the fistula are above all social. The patient constantly discharges urine, and she becomes ostracised from her community. She is not allowed at funerals nor to come to the well,” he says.

It’s a fate that the girls of Kaya Sisters Centre are fortunate to have escaped.

Although she has already passed her teens, Christine Ouedraogo is only in the seventh grade at a local high school — but she hopes to catch up.

“I want to become one of those independent city women who decide for themselves when to marry and with whom,” she says. — IPS

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