Real lives

Real lives


Breaking the cycle – ending child marriage

© UNICEF Gambia/ November2014/ ssinghateh
Marie Jawo is 19 years-old, a participant in the Tostan Community Empowerment Programme and an advocate for the abandonment of child marriage in her village, Fatoto, in The Gambia’s Upper River Region

Less than a year ago, 19 year-old Marie Jawo from Fatoto village, a Fula community in The Gambia’s Upper River Region, was like many other adolescents in her community – she was attracted to the glamour of marriage, and especially to young men who have been living abroad – also known as ‘semesters’.

“Many of the girls I know do not go to school and so marriage is something for them to do,” explained Marie. “Even when they are in school and do not want to marry, they are given little choice because the husband-to-be would have given their parents money or jewellery or promised to send them to Mecca to perform the pilgrimage. For many of us, this was a natural thing.”

Child or forced marriage in The Gambia is a reality for many girls, especially those living in the rural parts of the country. According to The Gambia’s 2010 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), 46.5 per cent of girls and women aged 15-49 were married or in union before they turned 18 years while 8.6 per cent of those who were married or in union actually got married before their 15th birthday. 

In the Upper River Region (URR), where the Tostan Community Empowerment Programme is being implemented and which records some of the worst development indicators, the prevalence of child marriage is much higher, with 70.4 per cent of girls and women aged 15-49 married before they were 18 years-old and 9.6 per cent before they turned 15 years. 

“Some parents knew that their daughters were too young to marry but they were afraid that the girls would become pregnant outside of wedlock,” said Marie. “This is shameful for the family, so they marry them off – very early sometimes.”

Child marriage can have adverse repercussions on the health, education and general development of girls; it is a human rights violation and an obstacle to attaining the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and Post-MDG targets. Many of these girls are unable to enjoy social and economic opportunities because they are often taken out of school early with very little employable knowledge and skills. 

Becoming pregnant early puts girls at risk of complications – and even death – during delivery. In The Gambia, infant and maternal mortality currently stand at 81/1000 (MICS, 2010) and 360/100,000 (WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA 2012 Maternal Mortality Estimates), respectively. In addition, many girls risk developing fistulas during delivery which invariably leads to social stigma and isolation. 

In many cultural settings, girls usually marry much older men and, given the age gap, the girls usually become victims of domestic violence and exploitation as well as sexual abuse at the hands of their husbands. These acts expose girls to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, and frequent pregnancies.  

With support from UNICEF, The Government of The Gambia through the Women’s Bureau has been working closely with Tostan, a Senegal based international NGO, to engage communities through its Community Empowerment Programme (CEP), using  a holistic approach to look at all aspects of the problem. 

The CEP is an empowering, non-directive, non-judgmental, human rights based, non-formal education programme that informs and empowers individuals in a community so that they can make their own decision and willingly commit themselves to ending such human rights violations as child marriage, female genital mutilation/cutting and other harmful traditional practices.

“When Tostan came to my village in June 2014, after some of the villagers requested that they should bring their programme to us, many things changed for the better,” said Marie Jawo. “Our lessons on human rights and democracy have taught us about cleanliness and about resolving our problems without involving the police every time – there is greater social harmony and peace in the village. And now that girls in my village and other villages know their rights, they feel empowered and they can now say no to child marriage and other practises that violate their rights. So, we are happy.”

Although Marie still wants to get married, she now knows that she should not rush it and has to finish her education first. Currently in Grade 9, Marie encourages other adolescents to refrain from getting married or pregnant early. She shares her new-found knowledge with her peers and encourages those who are not in school to enrol the CEP. 

Tostan has been implementing the CEP in The Gambia since 2007, targeting Mandinka, Fula and Sarahuleh communities in the Upper River Region, which consists of about 400 villages. To date, the CEP has reached a total of 145 villages in the region. Of this number, 112 villages were reached directly and 33 indirectly through the organised diffusion strategy.  

By UNICEF Communication Specialist
12 November 2014



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