Text message saves girl from forced marriage

Kadidiatou Korsaga, director of Burkina Faso’s department for girls’ education promotion, despairs when asked about the recent case of a 15-year-old girl kidnapped from her school classroom and dragged off for an arranged marriage with an older man.

"If this happens at Koudougou, which is an urban centre, imagine what happens in the areas where there is no administrative structure, no school, no health centre," Korsaga said from her office at the Ministry of Primary Education and Literacy in the capital, Ouagadougou.

The Koudougou case had a happy ending for the unwilling bride. It made headlines across Burkina Faso earlier this year when police freed the girl, who has not been named, after she sent her friends and teachers a text messages begging for help.

But for thousands of other Burkinabe girls, being whisked away from their parents for forced matrimony does not mean living happily ever after.

The government says while nationally 55 percent of girls are now being educated, only 11-19 percent of girls get schooled in the east and north of the country. This is among the lowest proportion in the world, but nonetheless an improvement from 38 percent in 2000.

The rest usually get married, exchanged for dowries while they are as young as 11 or 12, or as soon as they start menstruating. Most of these girls will live as illiterate servants to their new husbands, carting water, performing menial tasks and raising numerous children.

Obstetric fistula, a tearing injury of the vagina that leaves women incontinent and sometimes shunned by their communities, is often caused by early childbirth. Aid agencies and development experts identify educating girls as key to improving productivity in the desperately poor Sahel region, and reducing its exploding birth rates and child mortality.

Amina Elizabeth Ouedraogo, coordinator of the International Centre for Girls’ and Women’s Education in Africa, paints a shambolic picture of the government’s attempts to curb early marriage and under-education in the remote east of Burkina Faso.

She said free textbooks, suspension of school fees and more small schools in villages were promised last year. But when dozens of new students turned up at school, their parents quickly pulled them out after learning they would be expected to cram into small, dirty straw huts with few teachers or resources.

“The infrastructure must accompany the promises, otherwise parents just give up,” she said.

Issa Barry, a teacher at one of those schools in the remote eastern town of Dori, blames people’s dire economic problems for their unwillingness to keep their children in school.

“Keeping girls at school is always a problem when they come from families in abject poverty,” she said. “For them, marrying the girl off as soon as possible becomes an economic necessity.”

Yet another obstacle to giving girls a better start in life is Burkina Faso’s culture itself, according to Zalikatou Traore, the official responsible for improving girls’ education in Seno province where Dori is located.

“When parents are mocked for keeping their daughters at school while other girls in their age group are being married, they will give up,” Traore said.

However, for Sister Monique Bonamy, a French missionary who has run a children’s school in Dori for 30 years, the key is making people more comfortable about giving their children an education.

“People are simply afraid of losing their values with foreign teaching methods. Teaching needs to be integrated into the way of life of people through satellite schools and bilingual schools more adapted to their milieu,” she suggested.

The Ministry of Health’s Korsaga said whatever the problems and the solutions, the case of the 15 year-old unwilling bride in Koudougou should serve as a wake-up call for the whole education system in Burkina Faso.

“It is a call to us for more vigilance,” he said. “We must go where we did not go before and assess the implementation of policies to promote girls’ education and employment.”

bo/nr/cs