New project to empower girls to defend themselves from harmful beliefs and practices
By Firmin Mbala
Maria, a 13 year old survivor who lives in the Sahel region of Burkina Faso, was forced to marry a 70 year old man who already had many wives. She didn’t have the chance to finish her first year of primary school, or have a normal childhood and play with her friends.
“About two weeks ago 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 center for young girls here.”
- Maria, early and forced marriage survivor.
The situation of women and girl’s sexual and reproductive rights in West Africa is alarming. Millions of African women are still subjected to harmful traditional practices, like Female Genital Mutilation or Cuts (FGM) and Early and Forced Marriage (EFM) that violate their most fundamental human rights.
Burkina Faso and Sierra Leone are amongst the worst countries that perform female genital mutilation with respectively 76% and 88% of women affected; while the proportion is 26% in Senegal. In these countries, early and forced marriage rates are also high with 30-50% of girls married before their eighteen birthday, and these numbers are set to double by 2050.
Female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage are closely related to poverty and low status of women in West Africa. Girls subjected to female genital mutilation are also often the girls who are at increased risk of early and forced marriage - which in turn is linked to early pregnancy and a high risk of dropping out of school, limiting women’s education and their ability to escape poverty. Along with that, women and girls health is compromised by female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage, since early pregnancies and childbearing are the leading causes of death of adolescent girls.
"The girl who undergoes FGM/C is the same girl who is taken out of school early to marry. And this is the same girl who dies before she reaches age 20, giving birth to her third child."
- Dr. Nafissatou Diop, UNFPA
To tackle these issues, Amnesty International is beginning an international initiative with support from the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), to enable targeted communities to abandon the practices of female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage. The project aims to empower women and girls by helping them defend themselves from harmful beliefs and practices, while involving the broader communities to help change attitudes and behaviors.
The project will encourage intergenerational dialogue with all stakeholders, including the community, religious and customary leaders, teachers and elected officials. It will also use a wide range of educational resources such as popular talks, participatory drama, and radio programs that are designed and implemented by local organizations. Students will be engaged through school-based activities to teach them about their human rights and highlight the harms of both female genital mutilation and early and forced marriage.