By Arthur Tokpah, ChildFund Guinea
“I should have graduated from high school like my friends,” Mariame says. But like many young Guinean women, she felt pressure to marry. Yielding to local tradition, Mariame wed an older man when she was only 13. He moved her to the capital city of Sierra Leone, where she didn’t know anyone.
“My parents obliged me to get married to a man who gave them the impression that he would allow me to continue school,” recalls Mariame, who is now 18. “After moving to his house, he said he did not marry me to go to school but to take care of the home and bear children for him.”
Mariame was able to leave her marriage and return to school, but many Guinean women don’t have the same opportunity.
According to UNICEF statistics from 2015, 21 percent of Guinean women ages 20 to 24 were married by the age of 15, and 52 percent were married by the time they were 18 years old, often to men more than a decade older in marriages arranged by their parents.
But Mariame and many other young people in Guinea are now speaking out to advocate for the rights of girls and young women — and against early marriage — with the support of ChildFund Guinea. Last month, our local partners in Kindia and Dabola held three public forums about early marriage, female genital mutilation and violence at school. More than 100 girls and boys ages 12 to 17 spoke openly about these issues, which are often kept quiet there, and recommended solutions to teachers, parents and government officials.
Public discussion is an important step in changing harmful traditions and attitudes that keep girls and women — and entire communities, by extension — trapped in poverty. We applaud the bravery and honesty of young people like Mariame who are shining a light on Guinea’s problems.
Reporting by Janella Nelson, ChildFund Education Specialist
Ramatoulie is a 15-year-old girl from The Gambia who was able to use her voice to stand up against early marriage — including the prospect of her own — and blossom into a confident teenager with support from ChildFund. Here is her story in her own words.
Until I was 12 years old, I stayed home all day and took care of my eldest sister’s baby. I wasn’t comfortable, since all the kids around me were going to school. I wanted to go to school because I could not speak English, so my mother put me in school. She advised me to do well in school. Sometimes she would cry in telling me this.
My father and mother are rice and groundnut (peanut) farmers. Neither one of them went to school. My mother got married around 18 years old and had six children — five girls and one boy, but one girl passed away. I am the youngest. The first two girls got married at 16 years old, and my brother was sent to live with a relative in Senegal to become a baker. My other sister was in school but dropped out when she got pregnant in grade nine because the school wouldn’t accept her anymore.I was focused on education because I kept hearing that education was the key to success. Our school was lucky because ChildFund brought the Aflatoun program, which is a club where I learned about my rights. I liked the club, and I worked really hard and eventually was chosen as vice president by the teachers and students. In grade six, I was voted to become president, and there were 120 students in the group.
One day, when I was 14, my father told me there was a man who wanted to marry me. He was much older, about 30 or more years older and already had a wife and a child. He was from another country and wasn’t educated. I did not want this. My father said the man would take care of me and pay for my school, and if I said no, I would no longer be his daughter, and he would take everything away. He gave me three days to change my mind. The man tried to give me money to convince me, but I gave the money directly to my father and said I don’t want it. I refused to take anything from the man. My mother couldn’t do anything to help me.
I continued going to school, and I was very sad. My teacher saw something was wrong with me, and eventually three teachers came to my house to see what had happened. They spoke to my father and learned that he was going to make me marry. They tried to convince him not to marry me off because I was doing so well in school. My father said he didn’t have any money to pay for school. The teachers and the local community organization said they would support me. My father said that from now onward the teachers and God will be responsible for me.
With the support of my teachers, I stayed home and finished sixth grade. ChildFund sponsored me to go into upper primary school by paying my school fees, and I went to live with another family. I am in a good school, and I will be in eighth grade this coming year. My father is happy because he couldn’t pay school fees for me. He is a poor man, not a bad man, and he thought marrying me off was the only way that I could be taken care of.
In my new school, I joined another club called Speak Out! that empowers girls and boys with skills to deal with problems that are hindering their access to academic development. My advice for other girls is that education is the key to success in life, and they should focus on education. Girls should be aware that many problems are caused by boys and sometimes even teachers, like sexual harassment. Girls should speak out to people and tell a teacher they can really trust.
I was chosen to represent The Gambia at the Day of the African Child conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, earlier this summer. The sky is the limit!
At the conference, Ramatoulie read a poem she wrote:
A dark world, an odd emotion
Crossing my dreams, taking my emotions, my laughter and joy.
My smile seems so meaningless
The dark corners where I hid
Began to feel like home
As my childhood days are numbered
I drown in an ocean of my tears
With no one to help or pull me out
Tying the knot with a stranger
No friends, no allies
No love, no sympathy
Just a hall of darkness
Where my future dies
My doom is certain
My end is near
I dream of death, as I dream of heaven
Hopeless and helpless I saw myself
I think there was no one to help
But then I was wrong. In my surprise, as I drown deeper in the oceans of my tears. An organization came to rescue me called ChildFund.
They give me a new life.
They brought back my laughter and joy
They make my smile so meaningful
The dark world I was living before became a brighter one
They made me what I am today. ChildFund is everything to me.
They pay my school fees and even offer me a place…
A very responsible and kind person took me to her place, sheltered me and treated me like her own child. The beginning of my end I saw was the end of my misery. And the beginning of my bright future.