By Terry Ally
Ougadougou, Burkina Faso (October 1, 2012) – When the Taureg fled the fighting in north Mali into neighbouring Burkina Faso they brought part of their culture with them – the practice of child marriage.
When one raises the question of early childhood marriage in the refugee camps they close ranks and shy away from the subject.
“It is taboo to discuss child marriage,” says Fatimata Nabias-Ouedraogo, Plan Burkina’s Child Protection Advisor. “If we notice a young girl in the company of a man and we ask who this man is, they would say ‘Oh, he’s a friend’. We know that he might in fact be either the husband or fiancé who is looking over her.”
In the Taureg culture, early marriage is seen as mechanism to prevent the girl from yielding to temptation to have sex outside of marriage. To do so – or to become pregnant – would be akin to an unpardonable sin. Nabias-Ouedraogo says there are numerous health, social welfare and economic reasons why early marriage is a bad thing.
Statistics on how many girls have been married since the camps were established in March is difficult to come by however Nabias-Ouedraogo, based on her experience, believes that more than half of the 1,016 girls, aged 11-17, may have already been married or promised in marriage.
Request for sex education
Plan Burkina, however, believes that there is good opportunity to turn the tide on child marriage and influence parents to allow the girls to complete their education.
Child protection workers are beginning to make encouraging progress. Some parents are starting to speak with them about the impact of early marriage. They discuss and consider how an education can lift their girls out of poverty, improve them socially and help them to do very practical and life-saving things such as read the labels on medicine or prescriptions.
Nabias-Ouedraogo says that a peer-mentoring group comprising young people from the community and the refugee camps is also engaging them in debate and discussion on these subjects. They hope this would have a trickle-up effect. And for those girls who are already married, they hope they would recognise the benefits of allowing their children to get a full education first.
Some of the children in the camp were attending school in Mali. A survey conducted to ask about their needs and desires reveal startling differences between those who have been educated and those who never went to school.
Those who went to school requested some dramatically different things. For example boys asked for sex education and information on reproductive health. They also wanted a TV, Playstation and board games. The girls however made no requests for entertainment items – a telltale sign that they might already be pre-occupied with married life.
Another pressing area of child protection work in the camps, says Nabias-Ouedraogo, is that of non-discrimination.
At focus are the Bella children. The Bella is a social class of the Taureg who were historically enslaved by the Taureg. When the French colonialised West Africa they abolished slavery but the practice continues, according to the Malian human rights organisation, Temedt.
The Taureg refugees have told Plan that the Bella are not slaves. Instead, they are the ‘protectors’ of the Bella. So much so that no one, except them, can speak with a Bella child.
Plan Burkina is setting up child-friendly spaces (CFS) in the camps to allow children to have their own place where they can be children, playing and enjoying a childhood. There is much to do there. Older children will have access to television, Play Station and board games among other activities. They are provided with meals, taught about hygiene and sanitation.
“Our unconditional and non-negotiable position is that all children must attend. There must be equal opportunity,” she says, adding that “we will not encourage a situation where only Arabs come but not Taureg, or Taureg and Arabs but not Bella. It has to be for all 7,000 refugee children – and we are also inviting children from the villages.”
The Taureg in these camps have come mainly from Gao in northern Mali where Temedt says that Bella slavery still exists.
Iddar Ag Ogazide, a Bella, has been quoted by the UN humanitarian news agency, IRIN, as saying that he worked for the Tuareg Ag Baye family for 35 years without receiving a salary or an education. He says the Ag Bayes bought his great-grandmother and inherited his family members from one generation to the next. In March 2008 Iddar and his wife Takwalet escaped.
Takwalet has been quoted by IRIN as saying that “life was hard there. Everything I did was against my will. I did all the cooking, pounding [of millet], getting water, fetching the wood and sweeping the house. I never received money; I didn’t even get any clothes.”
Whether slaves or free, Plan Burkina’s focus is one of non-discrimination and equal opportunity. Nabias-Ouedraogo says it’s an uphill task but they will continue to advocate with the Taureg so they can achieve a delay of marriage, a full education for girls and equal access to services for all children irrespective of their race, colour, class or creed.