Real lives

Real lives


Experience is the best teacher: abandoning FGMC and child marriage

mother daughter
© UNICEF Gambia
Twenty-six year old Halimatou Baldeh from Samba Tako village, Lower River Region, was married off when she was 13 years old. Today, she is very protective of her 10 year-old daughter, Ramatoulie.

“My daughter will not go through the same experiences I did,” said 26 years old Halimatou Baldeh, originally from Sare Jowbbeh village in the Upper River Region (URR) of The Gambia. “She will never be circumcised and I want her to be at least 30 years old before she gets married! I have experienced the penalty of both practices.” 

Halimatou’s personal experiences and 3 years of being a participant in Tostan’s Community Empowerment Programme (CEP) have transformed her into a firm advocate for the abandonment of female genital mutilation/ cutting (FGMC) and child/forced marriage.

The CEP is implemented in URR in collaboration with the government of The Gambia’s Women’s Bureau with funding support from UNICEF and takes a holistic, non-formal, human rights based approach to accelerate the abandonment of both practices while promoting good personal and environmental hygiene. After 3 years of the CEP, communities take an informed decision to abandonment of both practices, publicly declaring it. 

“I was married when I was 13 years. I didn’t want him, he was an old man,” she said. “I tried running away from home several times, but my father always caught me, beat me and sometimes tie me. Finally, I was forced to go and live with my husband in his village.” 

Child or forced child marriage is a reality for many girls, especially those living in economically deprived and hard-to-reach rural parts of the country such as the URR. According to The Gambia’s 2013 Demographics and Health Survey (DHS), 41% and 16% of women aged 20-49 were married or in union before they turned 18 and 15 years, respectively. A reason given for the practice is to prevent pregnancy outside of wedlock, but these marriages, often to much older men, can also put girls at risk of domestic violence and sexual abuse.

Halimatou was afraid of having sex with her husband because she had been sealed. Sealing is the most severe form of circumcision practised in The Gambia, where the clitoris and inner lips are cut and the vaginal passage is sealed but for a small hole for menstruation. Nationwide, 75% of women have been circumcised, according to the 2013 DHS, but the prevalence is highest in URR at 96.7%.

Halimatou’s husband had her unsealed prior to intercourse. “The circumciser didn’t do a good job of it and my husband didn’t wait for me to heal properly before having sex with me. He hurt me badly,” said Halimatou who is still suffering physically and psychologically from her sexual experiences with her husband. 

In the years that followed, a desperate Halimatou tried several times to escape her husband. Once, she ran off to her friend’s house 7km away, but her father found her and took her back to her husband, who beat and threatened to kill her if she tried to leave again.

“But I escaped again, and this time I made it to Cassamance where a woman sheltered me after I told her I got separated from my mother who I was certain was searching for me,” explained Halimatou. Several weeks later, news of her father’s demise reached her through a travelling trader who knew her family and she returned with him to The Gambia, knowing she did not have to return to her husband again. 

Instead of going home, Halimatou, 16 years old and pregnant, went to live with her older sister in Samba Tako village (URR) where, years later, in 2012, she enrolled in the CEP. Because of the damage done by her circumcision, and subsequent forced intercourse, Halimatou had to deliver her baby by emergency Caesarean section. “The delivery wound became infected and took a long time to heal. I was in pain for two years,” she said. “But, I was happy to be free from my marriage at last!”

For Halimatou, participating in the CEP was able to make her better understand how her child marriage and FGMC experiences have affected her both physically and psychologically, and impacted on her own beliefs in how she wishes to raise her 10 year old daughter, Ramatoulie. 

“I try to help others too. My sister wanted to cut her two younger daughters but I convinced her to change her mind by reminding her of the daughter she had circumcised a few years before who almost bled to death. I added ‘have you forgotten what happened to me. Do you want both your daughters to suffer the same ordeal?’ Then she decided not to do it.”

Halimatou’s story is a powerful message to others to abandon both practices of FGM/C and child marriage. 

To date, over 174 villages in URR have been reached with the CEP.



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