Girls in Burkina Faso forced out of school and into early marriage

Girls' education

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Young women at a refuge in Burkina Faso which helps illiterate victims of forced marriage 

Thousands of girls in Burkina Faso are being robbed of their childhood and their education by early and forced marriage, says a new human rights report.

Amnesty International says many girls and young women are beaten or threatened if they try to make their own decisions about when to get married and have children.

“Far too many women and girls in Burkina Faso have no control over their lives,” said Alioune Tine, Amnesty International’s Regional Director for West and Central Africa.

“Once married, girls are expected to have children as soon as possible. Early pregnancies greatly increase the risk of girls dying or experiencing life-changing physical injuries.

“Very few have the chance to go to school or complete their education.”

The law in Burkina Faso says girls should not marry before the age of 17. But more than half of girls aged 15 to 17 in the country's Sahel region are married.

Maria, a 15-year-old interviewed by the human rights organisation, was one of six children whose father had four wives.

She said: “I never got to finish attending even the first year of primary school. I don’t know why my parents took me out of school.

“I had to spend my days helping out with household tasks. My dad married me to a 70-year-old man who already has five wives.

“My dad threatened me, saying, ‘If you don’t go to join your husband I will kill you.’ I spent three days with my other co-wives at the house, then I fled. I walked for three days to get to the centre for young girls.”

Statistics from the United Nations children's agency UNICEF show the percentage of girls attending both primary and secondary level education is very low. Only 17.1% of girls, compared with 21.4% of boys, actively attend secondary school.

Amnesty International's report – Coerced and denied: Forced marriages and barriers to contraception in Burkina Faso – said there are many reasons for this, including families being unable to afford school fees.

The report adds: “Parents frequently choose not to send their daughters to school because they do not see it as useful or necessary given that girls are expected to be married early, have household duties and produce children while they are still in their teens.”

One 16-year-old girl said that when she asked her parents if she could go to school, they said: “What is the point in sending you to school? There is no benefit from girls being educated.”

The girl refused to get married and has been banished by her family. And she has never been to school.

Amnesty International said cultural pressures means the vast majority of girls forced into marriage are expected to immediately give up school to look after the house, have children and attend to their husband’s needs.

Women in Burkina Faso have an average of six children. Official figures show that less than 16% of women use a modern method of contraception, dramatically increasing the risk of unwanted and sometimes high-risk pregnancies.

Almost 30% of girls aged 15 to 19 in rural areas are pregnant or have had their first baby – despite the fact they are twice as likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth as those over 20.

Amnesty International's report makes a series of recommendations, including:

  • Setting the minimum age of marriage for both girls and boys at 18
  • Making it a criminal offence to use violence, threats or coercion to force someone to get married
  • Responding effectively to violence against girls and women by partners or family members – including forced or early marriage

Change is imperative if life is to change for girls in Burkina Faso like 15-year-old Celine.

She said: “I fled on my wedding day. I went to the police station. My father wanted me to marry the herder who kept my father’s cows. He wanted to reward him for his services. The man was quite young but he already had a wife. 

“I want to resume my studies now and become a teacher. My favourite subjects are history and geography.”

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