Burkina Faso: Students march to protest child marriage and early pregnancy

| March 24, 2019

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Like every other school day, Alice Soré Wendlassida wakes up at 6:30. Fifteen minutes later, the 15-year-old girl mounts her bike to ride to Kiswendsida Secondary School in Kaya, 100 kilometres northwest of Ougadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. After her French class and science work, there is a break for all the students. But today, Alice plans to attend a protest.

About 2,000 students, girls and boys from ages 6 to 17, gather at the start of the protest that will address child marriage and early pregnancy.

For Alice, the issue is close to her heart. She recalls one of her friends in Dibilou, her home village, who was arranged to be married. She says: “Alimata is 15, like me. She was arranged to be married. When you say to elders that this practice should be banned, they call you disrespectful. I want to change that. This is what pushed me to join this march.”

It is even more personal for another youth at the march. Zénabo Sawadogo explains her experience: “My father kicked me out of the house when I got pregnant at 16. Today, I have rejoined the family and I am learning sewing, but it was very difficult.”

She has a message for her fellow teenagers. She says: “I advise my fellow students to abstain from sexual relations or to use contraceptives.”

But today, these 2,000 youth are taking their message to the government and wider community. At about 4 p.m., under a still-burning sun, teenagers from 13 primary and secondary schools in Kaya walk in rhythm to the sound of instruments.

At moments during the march, the thousands of voices come together as one to chant slogans like “Child marriage … we don’t want it!” “No to pregnancy in school!” “Irresponsible parents … out.” “Educate and protect the children!”

They attract the attention of onlookers as they pass by the central market, making their way from De la Femme roundabout. After about two kilometres on the city streets, the marchers, with dusty feet and tired faces, arrive at their destination: Esplanade du Gouvernorat. Many government representatives are present, including the governor of Centre-North Region, the high commissioner of Sanmatenga province, and the mayor of Kaya. The march was organized by the regional representative for family and social issues, with funding from Plan International Burkina Faso.

A timid-looking girl steps forward to convey their message, with her comrades standing behind her. It’s Alice. Facing the highest administrative authorities of the region, this young woman paints a bleak picture of violence against children in the Centre-North Region.

She raises her voice, saying: “Madame Governor, between January 2016 and March 2018, 385 cases of marriage or attempted marriage of children were recorded. As for early pregnancy, 155 cases were registered among children from 10 to 16 years old at just 50 secondary schools and colleges, and 11 cases in five primary schools in Centre-North Region during the 2017-2018 school year.”

In response, Governor Nandy Somé Diallo says that legislation was recently strengthened to bring harsher penalties against adult school staff who impregnate schoolgirls. Mrs. Somé adds that words alone are not enough: “Listen to the advice of your parents to not fall into the trap of early pregnancy.”

Concerning child marriage, Mrs. Somé makes a commitment: “We are going to engage all community members to put an end to this practice in the region.”

After such a solemn event, her comments were met with fierce applause.

Later, the governor’s square is empty of people, but Alice is still here. Satisfied to have participated in the march, she explains that she has often met young pregnant girls at school and she feels for them—because life is not easy for pregnant teens.

She knows it will be a long fight to change the statistics of child marriage or early pregnancy, but she dreams of becoming a social worker to take an active role in this continuing effort.

This article was produced with the support of the Government of Canada through the project “Promoting health, sexual and reproductive rights, and nutrition among adolescents in Burkina Faso (ADOSANTE).” The ADOSANTE project is led by a consortium including Helen Keller International, Marie Stopes-Burkina Faso (MS/BF), Farm Radio International, the Centre d’information de Conseils et de Documentation sur le Sida et la Tuberculeuse (CICDoc), and the Réseau Afrique Jeunesse Santé et Développement (RAJS).