Child Marriage in The  Gambia

October 11th marked the “The International Day of the Girl Child.” The theme for this year is Child Marriages. As a woman who hails from sub-Saharan Africa, the first thing that pops to my mind is just how lucky I am. I mean, how lucky I am, not to be counted among the long list of women who are victim to child marriages. This is apropos to facts established which indicate that in sub-Saharan Africa, where I was born, around 4 in 10 girls marry before the age of 18 years. Moreover, for developing countries like mine (except China), 1 in 3 girls get married before they turn 18.

I come from the smallest country in mainland Africa, The Gambia, which is dominated by majority Muslims and largely dependent on aid from donors for its sustainability. In my country, gender inequalities in the society are entrenched and facilitated by economic efficiency and social injustice.  In discussing child marriages among girls in The Gambia these imperatives cannot be overemphasized.

Globally, it is reported that one in seven adolescent girls aged 15 – 19 are currently married or in union. A testament to this is that many of my female cousins were married off in those age ranges. For the purpose of this article however, I would like to focus on two of my brilliant and very promising cousins, who were married at the flowering ages of 17 and 18 years respectively. One of them, whom I would call Borgel left school in Grade 10 following failure by her father to continue to support her schooling. She ended up taking over the household chores from her mother and other domestic responsibilities.

Borgel’s case is reflective of the growing trend of school drop-out rates among girls in the higher classes in school, especially in The Gambia. Whereas gender equality has been incorporated in The Gambia education policy, struggles to integrate the key concepts of gender, gender equality, gender equity and women’s empowerment have to contend with religious beliefs, cultures, anti-feminist politics among others. Needless to say, the statistics on child marriage speak for themselves. Largely, the specific beliefs about gender roles in our society are the greatest impediments to ending child marriages.

For instance, in The Gambia, girls are expected to help their mothers with the household chores. These chores may vary from cooking, cleaning the house, washing the dishes and laundry, babysitting their younger siblings and so forth. For most girls, before preparing to go to school, they are required to complete their household chores. Needless to say, the sheer exertion of the chores affects their levels of concentration in class as well as their effective participation in lessons. This triggers down to affect their overall class performance and ultimately increases their chances of dropping out of school before they complete their schooling.

The other dimension to this is the societal expectation of girls to marry young to the extent that girls by the age of 16-18 years begin to experience the stirrings that affect young women who come of age and wish to get married by all means possible. These girls would care less whether they remain in school or not. Education is not really as much a priority for them as marriage to conform to societal norms is.

In Borgel’s case, she loved school and enjoyed participating in extra-curricular activities. She was fond of school sports and was even made Captain of the football team of her school. Her father who did not support her aptitude for sports, in the belief that girls should girly and should find a suitable husband before they get of age, yielded to his fear that due the extra-curricular activities she participated in, Borgel would probably bring shame to the family by getting pregnant before she got married.

Borgel ended up marrying the shopkeepers’ son, less than a year after she left school, in order to escape from her father’s overtly strict upbringing and also to escape from the tedious domestic activities she was charged with at such a tender age.

My other cousin, Sira, who is Borgel’s elder sister completed Grade 12 and for reasons similar to what Borgel had experienced, married her math school teacher soon after leaving school, derailing her future prospects as well.

Sira’s case is pertinent, for she came out with flying colors in the final exams for Senior Secondary School leavers. Her case is especially sad, because upon marrying at 18 years of age, she got a succession of kids and a few miscarriages in between. By the age of 23, she already had 3 children and had to watch on while her husband accomplished his dreams of pursuing university education and obtaining further promotions in his line of work.

After the arrival of her third child, Sira had wanted to upgrade herself and find a suitable job to increase the limited resources her family had to contend with from the little fish money her husband gave her. Her husband however, adamantly refused to allow her to pursue any academic interests out her marriage in the guise that he wanted freshly cooked meals prepared by his wife on a daily basis and also, he did not want anyone raising their little children other than their own mother.

Due to his controlling and manipulative streak, he was able to convince Sira’s own family, on the basis of religion, to make her stay in the house, where women ‘belonged’. Moreover, he would threaten Sira with a divorce and/or punish her by refusing to give her fish money for one and sometimes two days consecutively when she insists on trying to achieve something for herself.

Fear of the stigma attached to divorced young women and reticence to return to her father’s house with her children in addition to economic constraints, prevailed over her ambitions to improve her livelihood and make her stay in an unfulfilled marriage that is steeped in human rights abuses and violence.

Without doubt, the role of gender in ensconcing the expectations about the characteristics, aptitudes, and likely or appropriate behaviours of both women and men, including what it means to be masculine or feminine is the underpinning system of subordination in The Gambian society. Religion is also used a tool to entrench regressive behaviours, attitudes and expectations about what a girl should and should not do.

In effect, the marriages of my cousins which may seem, on the outside, to be a result of their own volition, alludes to their inherent vulnerability as girls, who due to economic dependence and a poor social justice system, seek escapism through marriage, whilst they are still girls and are therefore unable to make the right decisions for themselves.

My chance in this aspect lies in the fact that out of three girls, my mum is the only girl who received formal education up to secondary school level, thanks to the Owens family who adopted her when she was just four years old. My mum due to her educational background reinforced the value of education and instilled the discipline of learning in her own four girls and one boy, of which I am the eldest. My mother’s sisters on the other hand, were not so lucky, and neither were their girls.

In spite of the international development community’s effort for the past two decades to promote girls’ education, it has been unable to promote gender equality through education neither had it been successful in promoting gender parity in education. Coming back home to The Gambia, despite the Education Policy (2004) and the Children’s Act (2005) which mandated free and compulsory basic education; as well as various other initiatives which encourage girls’ education, such as fee exemptions to encourage attendance in higher institutions of learning, discrimination against girls remains deep-rooted and hails from socially constructed notions about masculine and feminine roles in the society. These have historically been prejudiced against women and girls.

Until the value of education and the importance of girls’ education in particular, are accentuated in the society, incentives to remove child marriage will fall short of delivering effective and sustainable results warranting the indignities millions of girls are already facing as a result of child marriage.

A key ingredient in this effort should be pinioned on directing effective participation of men in the fight against child marriages with the aim to carry the debate on gender, gender equality and women’s empowerment forward, and provide solutions to rein in the specific needs of girls. Religious leaders also need to be engaged to underline the requirements of equality espoused in the religion of Islam, which caters to the specific needs of women and girls in its teachings, without discrimination whatsoever.

In a nutshell, girls must be afforded the same opportunities as boys and allowed to grow into responsible adults who are capable of deciding for themselves their life choices. The importance of girl’s education in the society should be highlighted more in the country’s development agenda and the ban on child marriages, which came into effect recently in July 2016, must be effectively enforced in every nook and cranny of the country. In light of these, I add my voice to clarion call, ‘Let Girls Be Girls.’

By Fatmata Borogi