Women in Africa: We’re empowering girls by ending child marriage
By Clara How, Mar 18, 2021
Every year, 12 million girls are forcefully married before the age of 18, according to UNICEF. It is a worldwide problem across nations and regions, including Africa, Asia and Latin America, and born out of poverty, deeply entrenched traditions and cultural beliefs, and gender inequality.
The numbers are stark, but they also reflect change. The proportion of women married as children have decreased by 15 per cent, and thanks to initiatives such as the United Nations’ commitment to end child marriage by 2030, 25 million fewer child marriages have taken place than what was projected 10 years ago.*
In this third story of our International Women’s Day series, we focus on this progress, and recognise a young woman from the African continent who is looking to empower her peers through knowledge and education.
Isatu Bokum, 24, was born and raised in The Gambia, a country where 26 per cent of girls are married before 18**. She is now a postgraduate student reading a degree in media theory and practice at the University of Capetown, South Africa.
Isatu is an activist and the founder of Girls Talk Organisation, which advocates for girls and women’s rights — ending child marriage is one of the many causes that she is championing. She is inspired by her mother, a woman who fought for a better future for her family.
I grew up in a tribe where child marriage was prevalent.
Child marriage is now illegal in The Gambia and the minimum age for marriage is now 18, after the Children’s Amendment Act was passed in July 2016. However, it is still practiced today as we speak, because of how deeply rooted the belief is in some communities.
Within these tribes, most men believe that a woman should be submissive and provide for their needs, and that men should not be seen as weak.
There are several reasons why parents marry their children off young: poverty is a leading factor. Parents from underprivileged backgrounds marry their girls for monetary gain and the exchange of dowry, with material goods differing within each tribe. In The Gambia, this usually includes money, based on an agreement by the girl’s relatives.
From a young age, girls are raised to believe that women aren’t supposed to achieve more than building a home and taking care of the family. The older generation consider being married early as an honour for every woman. Some also believe that if a girl is not married early, she will be promiscuous, and it is better to subject them to early marriage to prevent them from bringing shame to the family.
There is little regard for consent when arranging a marriage. Some communities betroth their babies, and most of the time, a girl only knows about her own wedding either on the day itself, or just several days before. This leaves them with little room to protest or refuse. For those who protest, they are shunned by their families, and usually forced to succumb to their demands.
Because I was raised in this environment, child marriage didn’t seem wrong to me. I grew up seeing that women didn’t have a say, and that a woman’s role was at home.
I believe that if I had stayed there, I would have had two children by now. I owe what I have to my mother, who left the village for the sake of our family.
As a child, I didn’t see my father often because he was always travelling. This was common for my tribe (the Saruhules), where most fathers travel abroad to work. My father was also highly regarded as our family is descended from the nobles, a hierarchy my tribe still believes in.
When I was eight, my mother had to move to the city for an operation, and she took myself and my younger brother with her. After she recovered, people back home assumed we would move back to the village. But my mother insisted that we stay.
In The Gambia, most tertiary institutions are located in the city, and not everyone can afford to move there and pay the university fees. Most girls from rural communities would have a low chance of continuing their education after completing high school.
My mother had to drop out of school to get married and she wanted more for us. She knew we would achieve more in the city than if we had stayed at home.
I remember the number of phone calls that my mother received, asking for her to come back with us. People asked, “Why would you want to waste money to send her to school?” If I were a boy, I doubt they would have been so insistent. My mother stood firm, and she brought the rest of my siblings over so that we could all attend school.
Because my father lived abroad and understood the importance of education, he supported her decision. I think if my dad had not had this exposure, things might have turned out differently for us.
I started to take a keen interest in women’s rights when I was 13, thanks to a proprietor at the school that I attended. She has since passed away, but she believed in empowering young women, and organised programmes to encourage us to believe that we can achieve more than what we think. I saw how much she was putting in for us, and I told myself: “This cannot end with her. I want to continue her legacy.”
Many girls are blind to what they can achieve, and I would have been the same if I had not left the village.
When a girl is married at a young age, they are denied a childhood and their dreams are cut short. They are forced to become adults when they are still children, and the taking up of responsibilities beyond their years causes anxiety and stress. Child marriages also result in teenage pregnancies, but these girls have bodies that are not fully developed to bring forth another life, and they are subjected to many health conditions after birth.
Many become trapped in unhappy marriages, but cannot leave because they don’t want to be labeled as divorcees and bring shame to their family. They are also entirely financially dependent on their partners, and this dependency can be used as a form of control or punishment to be subservient.
Women are made to believe that everything wrong in their marriage is their fault, and theirs to correct. Even if they were to complain to others about their predicament, the usual advice would be to endure. Because of this, most girls prefer to stay silent, and remain in their unhealthy marriages.
My dream was to help girls to know that they are not limited by ideologies or their environment — there is so much more they can be.
In 2018, I successfully applied for and attended a programme run by the Young African Leadership Initiative, which was pioneered by Barack Obama, the former president of the United States of America.
It took place in Nigeria, and I met so many young leaders from different African countries. I was so inspired by what they shared that when I came home, I knew I had to start something on my own.
I have always been interested in media, and was interning at a multimedia house. I told my boss that I was interested in starting a talk show to address different issues that affect women, and he was very supportive and helped me shoot the episodes for free. That’s how Girls Talk began — every episode, I would bring on experts to talk about subjects like reproductive health, menstrual hygiene, and child marriage.
Initially, I had plans to take my show to a television station, but nothing came of it. I said to myself: “I cannot let this stop me. I can go online with this.” So I started a YouTube channel for Girls Talk and continued making more episodes.
Girls Talk received good feedback and interest, but the girls who lived in rural communities were the ones who really needed to hear these conversations, and most of them don’t have access to online platforms. If I wanted to speak with them, I would have to meet them myself — so I decided to turn Girls Talk into an organisation, on top of being a talk show.
Child marriage is still persisting because the law is not sufficiently enforced — it’s just bonded on paper. To me, the key is to raise awareness about the power of education for girls. In creating Girls Talk Organisation, I wanted to reach out to girls who are still in school, and keep them motivated and empowered so that they might be able to make decisions for themselves from an early age.
My goal is to build a community of girls who are motivated to disregard societal beliefs, amplify their voices, and stir other girls to believe in themselves and their dreams. In doing so, we hope to call on the government and stakeholders to effect change.
I put together a team, and we started at my own school, because of how much they had done for me. For a few hours a day, we spoke to 30 girls about menstrual hygiene, harmful traditional practices, and child marriage. For our second initiative, we went to another school that was out of town, and these were the girls whom we really wanted to speak with.
There are many advocacy groups like us, that are doing work to raise awareness on such matters. We might not be the first to speak with them, but I believe it’s about constantly sharing the effects of harmful practices such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, and reminding girls of how much more they could be.
The response was massive: the girls asked so many questions, and for those who weren’t comfortable asking out loud, they wrote their questions and dropped them in a box.
Since, Girls Talk has continued visiting schools, and I started a Girls Mentorship Programme. We coach girls to choose the right career path, motivate them to reach their potential and encourage them to learn ways and means to protect themselves. This knowledge and empowerment is vital to fight against child marriage.
I cannot fight this battle alone — I need people who share the same values as I do, so that together, we can work towards a common cause in creating a safe environment for girls and young women to break barriers.
The initial funding for Girls Talk Organisation came from my hard-earned savings. I knew that my dreams were big, and I didn’t want to just sit around and wait for organisations to hand me money, because the time might cost me from actualising my plans. I was an intern at the time, and would set aside half of my USD80 monthly pay to fund the activities. I was also fortunate to have people who saw the value of what I was doing, and offered to make donations.
While I was running all these programmes for women, my male friends began to tell me: “Isatu, we feel that men have a lot to offer as well. Most organisations don’t bring us into the picture because they see us as the enemy. But not all of us are enemies; we just need to understand how we can help.”
It then occurred to me that even though we are empowering all these women, most of their partners and family members will still be men. The conversation that we have with women, we should have with men as well so everyone can understand why equality is important.
In my experience, there are people who are open to change, and listening if proof and evidence is presented. But most communities are resistant because they feel like changing their ideologies would be letting go of their identity, culture, and traditions. They still feel like most of the advocacy work we do is dominated by Western ideas. To them, if themselves and their ancestors were happily married and bore children early, they don’t understand why it would be considered unacceptable or medically unsafe for the girls of this generation to do the same.
For gender equality to be reached, everyone needs to know their role in not normalising cultural and traditional beliefs.
That was how the idea of an All Men Summit was born: I wanted to bring men together for a conversation about understanding why women need their support and what they can do to amplify their own voices to end discrimination.
At that point in time, I was interning at The Girls Agenda, a women-led non-profit organisation that promotes women’s rights. I shared my idea with them, and they were completely on board. They became one of our many sponsors, and helped us connect with speakers.
The first All Men Summit took place in 2019. 100 men from different backgrounds attended, which made it the largest event of its kind to be held in The Gambia.
There were panel discussions with activists and experts in the fields of health, mentorship, and harmful traditional practices. There were also small group discussions and online channels. The summit continued in 2020, but held online because of the pandemic.
I received so many messages from men about how the summit changed their lives and the way they see women. This is the reason why I held the summit, and having these conversations with them just made me smile.
Last year’s theme was focused on ending domestic violence, which became a more pressing problem during COVID-19.
This wasn’t the only problem; the pandemic has also reversed decades of hard work in ending child marriage and gender inequality.
According to Save the Children, a humanitarian organisation for children, 2.5 million more girls around the world are now at risk of marriage in the next five years, as more families are pushed into poverty. Girls are also forced to stay home, and not attend school.
On our part, Girls Talk Organisation continued with our mentorship programme online, and if the girls do not own phones, we speak to their parents to find out how they are coping. We also ran a GoFundMe initiative, and raised USD300 in donations. The money was used to buy and distribute food supplies for 12 to 14 women in rural communities who could not go to the farm and get food.
Ultimately, my aim is to have a Girls Talk hub where girls from any background can have access to counselling sessions, a library, computers, and be part of conversations and classes on how they can improve. It’s a big dream, but I believe that if you start something, you need to keep it going so people know that you are serious and committed. It’s not easy and there are always going to be challenges, but it helps to have people around you who ensure that you can reach your vision.
My immediate family is extremely proud of me, and even though some of the topics I talk about aren’t always considered acceptable to the general public, they have always supported me. As for my extended family in the village, certain members do not approve of what I am doing. Some insinuate that the reason I am still not married is because I am too educated and think I know more than my elders.
But I like to believe that they will come around. My response has always been the same, that I won’t change my plans because their concerns are not valid and cannot define what I do. I am an empowered young woman, and nothing can stop me.
*According to a press release by UNICEF, published in 2018.
**According to Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1,500 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage.
This is the third story in our International Women’s Day series, ‘What I’m Choosing to Challenge in My Country’. Click here to read our story on normalising periods in the United Kingdom, and here to understand why transgender women in Malaysia need our help.
My name is Clara, and you can find me at @clarahow on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I write about mental health, and how one can feel empowered with self-awareness and understanding. I write about the weight of social expectations, the struggles between my needs and that of family, and being overwhelmed by the weight of the world’s problems — and why it is still important to listen, and discuss.
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