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Senegal: Survivor of early, forced marriage says tradition needs to change

Today, Ndeye Coumba Baldé, looks like other young women. You wouldn’t know it to look at her, but this 30-year-old woman did not have a happy childhood. Like many girls in the region, Ms. Baldé was given in marriage to a cousin when she was just 15 years old. 

Ms. Balde lives in Kalifourou, 200 km from Kolda in southern Senegal. She says her parents made the decision in the name of tradition. 

She adds that her father’s words still echo in her head, “You are going to get married tomorrow, God willing.” She recalls being shocked, and unable to say no.

Ms. Baldé says the marriage had many long-lasting, negative impacts on her life. She has no memory of her wedding night, which she says she shared with this stranger, her husband, for whom she felt no love. She says it was very difficult to share a bed with a man whom her heart did not marry. 

For seven months, Ms. Baldé suffered in her home, where she was the victim of repeated assaults at the hands of her husband. To escape, the young Ms. Baldé was forced to flee and take refuge with one of her friends. 

But even after she escaped, Ms. Baldé continued to suffer. Just a few weeks after leaving her husband’s home, she noticed changes in her genital area. A consultation with a midwife showed that Ms. Baldé was suffering from a severe sexually transmitted infection. 

After several months, Ms. Baldé was able to divorce her husband and resume her studies—she had dropped out of school in the third grade. Years later, Ms. Baldé is now a third-year student in the Faculty of Medicine at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar. She also works for a local organization called Parole aux jeunes (“Youth speak up”) which aims to protect children against early marriage. She devotes much of her free time to the fight against early childhood marriage by raising awareness in the regions of Senegal that are most affected. 

In these sessions, Ms. Baldé speaks to young girls, boys, and their parents about the negative consequences of early and forced marriage, and encourages them to stop the practice in their families and communities.

Unfortunately, Ms. Baldé’s story is a common one. Early and forced marriages are common in Senegal and often justified by traditional beliefs. Parents make a choice on behalf of their daughters and impose marriage against their will, which often harms their physical and mental health. 

Madjiguene Ndiaye is a midwife in Dakar, the capital of Senegal. She says that forced marriages often lead women to seek informal and unsafe abortions, which can result in death or other serious health impacts, including fetal development problems, premature birth, serious infections, and anemia. 

If the health consequences are disastrous, the statistics are no less so. According to a 2018 report from UNICEF, 30% of girls in Senegal are married before the age of 18. A 2010 report from the United States Agency for International Development found that early and forced marriages were most common in southern Senegal, where 32% of girls married without their consent were under the age of 16. 

Whatever the causes, early and forced marriages harm young girls, and seriously impact their health, well-being, and education. According to Ms. Baldé, the practice is an injustice to girls and a huge loss of their potential to contribute to the development of their communities and the country. 

Ms. Baldé says: “I suffered an injustice when I was forced into marriage at the age of 15 by my parents, who were under the weight of tradition. [But] I was able to get out of the situation because of my determination.”

This resource is undertaken with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada.

Photo: A woman sits with her child. Credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran for UNAMID.