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Senegal: Early Child Marriage and Children’s Rights to Education

Photo by Elena Uderzo

Today’s guest blogger is Elena Uderzo, a friend and colleague from London. Elena is currently working in  Senegal focusing on children’s rights regarding early marriage with pregnancy. As always please feel free to comment, share your view, and pass along today’s message.

Elena Uderzo from Senegal – 

I have been working for Action Aid Senegal for the last two months. We are conducting a survey targeting early marriage and pregnancy for young students in primary school. We are near Sokone, five-hour drive from the capital Dakar, a few kilometers away from The Gambia.

Our survey includes 11-14 years young girls on one side, and unfortunately on the other side there are often teachers who marry these girls, or other adults. These marriages are against the law and either they are not known to the people involved or worse are ignored. Is it a right to know the law or not?

During the past two weeks, we visited 24 schools and recorded already many cases of early marriage and early pregnancy. Our work is divided between my three colleagues and a French-Wolof translator. Wolof is the official language of Senegal. In some school students are taught in French and in the Arab schools they are taught in Arabic.  We are interviewing students and teachers to better understand the factors and causes at play in this context.

The understanding and knowledge about children’s rights do not come up in these children’s classes or at their homes. The students told me that they have great difficulty, as can be imagined, to discuss these issues with adults. The only information they can find are those provided by community radio stations that talk about the importance of continuing their studies in spite of the early marriage. It is easy to relay this message but then it is always their parent’s choice. Often for reasons related to poverty and to prevent pregnancies outside marriage. It is usually said that this happens to girls who do not have good results at school. The cultural aspects are difficult to understand for people coming from other cultures and for other reasons that people might not be able to explain to me clearly.

For now, I only record all these experiences, since it is not my duty to change the situation in this country about these issues. I am only investigating how active is the role of schools in the  communication with the families of the girls that “decided” to get married and that for this reason leave school forever. Thus disregarding their education and not knowing if they have the right to an education.

Unfortunately, the role of teachers is often that of passive acceptance of these decisions. That often happen, they say, during the great school holidays (which here are from June to October, coinciding with the rainy season), so that at the return in the classroom, you notice the absence of some students, now “happily married”.

The decision to get married is it a right or not?
There are local organizations, such as girls’ education committees and associations of women’s rights. I’m trying to get in touch with these organizations to collaborate with them on these issues, there are no clear data about these cases and it’s important to understand how others organization were previously mobilized.

I noticed that you cannot just talk about school dropout for girls, there is also a large share of male students who interrupt their studies to work in the fields,  others to go fishing, some to become  truck drivers, everything to gain a bit ‘of money for themselves and  their families.

The problem has many facets, and as an organization we are asking for more dialogue on the part of the schools on these issues. We hope to increase awareness among the students about the consequences of early marriages and pregnancies, their rights, and the importance of education. The pupils themselves can decide whether to convey their rights and duties to their families, where it’s possible.

Meanwhile as I write, people are preparing the fields waiting for the rain. Sandy fields are plowed, weeds removed, the rain is expected to start sowing, especially peanuts and millet in this region.

On the walls of the schools that I visited I saw written in French with colored chalks:

RIEN DE GRAND NE SE FAIT SANS PASSION

Without passion you cannot do anything important.

Réussite: TRAVAIL + DISCIPLINE

Success: commitment and discipline.

The intent, the desire to succeed is there, but there are no foundations yet, of well trained teachers, constructive school system, and also on a larger scale the importance of education in this country.

Greetings to all from the country that here is famous for the abstract concept of Teranga: Hospitality in Wolof.

Elena

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