Twelve-year-old Rama* in Senegal’s Sédhiou region is still in school instead of wedded to a man in his 40s, after community members convinced her father to abandon the family’s plan to give her away.
But in most cases family or social pressure to marry off young girls still wins out in many regions of the country, researchers and educators say.
“It is quite common to see parents remove their daughters from school to force them into marriage,” Saliou Sarr, secondary school principal in Mpal, 33km from the city of Saint-Louis, told IRIN.
National statistics on the number of girls leaving school to get married are not available, an Education Ministry official said.
In Sarr’s school 10 percent of girls aged 12-15 leave school annually because of family-arranged marriages. In a high school in the town of Guiré Yoro Boccar in the Kolda region, of the 43 girls admitted to secondary school this academic year 40 have got married and will not continue school, according to an Education Ministry representative in the region.
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“Many parents say they push marriage for fear their daughters will start to have sex for money or because keeping them in the household becomes too expensive,” Sarr told IRIN.
He explained that in Senegal young women who do not marry and whose families have few means often turn to commercial sex work to be able to buy what they want, especially in cities.
While some families worry about what they see as the risks of not marrying off their girls, the risks of forced early marriage are many - particularly for health, said reproductive health expert Fatim Thiam.
Law versus custom
Senegalese law holds that if a girl is under 18 the man must wait to consummate the marriage but “in practice this is never respected”, said Abdoulaye Seck, vice-president of Amnesty International in Senegal.
Marriage is legal from age 18; for girls aged 16-18 parents must give authorization; for those aged 13-16, a judge must decide. Marriage to girls under 13 is unlawful.
But as in 12-year-old Rama’s case, for many, custom outweighs the law.
“The father argued that he had to marry off his daughter because pressure from elders in the family was so great,” said Lamine Sané, history and geography teacher in Sédhiou and coordinator of a human rights and awareness club Amnesty launched in high schools in 2008. He and his colleagues met Rama’s father after she broke down crying one day in class and told of the marriage plan.
“We referred the matter to a prosecutor who then called for legal mediation… Eventually the father abandoned the plan.”
Sané said since awareness of the issue has expanded, communities have often been turning to the media or the justice system to put pressure on families who would give away their young girls.
But most forced marriages go uncontested. A recent study by UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the University of Ziguinchor said early pregnancy and forced and early marriage were types of sexual violence faced by young girls. “But these acts of violence generally do not go through a legal process. Rarely will a victim of early marriage take their case to a judge. They tend to resign themselves.”
* Not her real name