I Survived Being a Child Bride to Become a Champion for Women’s Rights
In May 2014, the African Union (AU) launched the first campaign of its kind to end child marriage in Africa by enhancing continental awareness of the harmful impact of child marriage and requiring states to take legal and social measures to stop the practice. I caught up with Soyata Maiga, the AU Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women at the first African Summit on Ending Child marriage late last year. The commissioner who was recently in Nairobi during the drafting of the General Comment organized by African civil society gave a rare glimpse into her childhood and how culture perpetuates child marriage in Africa and what can be done to end it.
Born in a remote village in Mali, Soyata Maiga knew that by age 12 she would be married off like the rest of her peers. Her father was a former soldier in Mali’s army. She was raised in a polygamous family of 16 children. Half of them were girls. The fact that her father was in the military and seemed to understand the importance of education did not stop him from following cultural norms.
Even as she went to the village school and dreamed of becoming a teacher, Soyata’s bride price had already been received by her father.
“I was enrolled in a school next to our home in the village. In fact, all my siblings went to the same school, but the girls were lucky because against all notions they ended up doing better than the boys in the family. This prompted my dad to ensure that we went to school. And so when I was called to the only girl’s high school in the country in Bamako—far away from my village—my dad reluctantly allowed me to further my studies.”
The school was state-sponsored, with boarding facilities and a staff of all-female teachers. This environment encouraged parents to allow their girls to attend school and not to worry that they might become sexually active and bring shame to the family. Maiga recalls, “You find that many families who keep girls away from school do so because they think the girls will bring shame to the family by getting pregnant. They marry them off out of fear, which is a tragedy for these children.”
Even when parents buck the trend, many girls are in the situation Maiga found herself when she entered high school in 1969: “I had already been betrothed and my father had received the dowry. This is the reason young girls get married off early in Africa. Their parents have already ‘eaten’ the dowry and cannot return it. Since they do not want to be ostracized, they let go of their girls even when they may have changed their minds.”
But Maiga refused to give up on her dream of becoming a teacher. “When your only role model is the woman who is married off early, your mind doesn’t think beyond the highest-achieving woman in your village. For me it was a teacher and I wanted to be one because that is the ceiling I had.”
Girls need role models to survive early child marriages. They need people of their own gender who can mentor them to be the best they can be. According to Commissioner Maiga, this is what keeps her going.
Every year, she would send an application to the teachers’ training school. The head of the training school finally noticed Maiga’s letters and decided to find out about the girl who so persistently applied but never showed up. His attention opened up a world of possibilities beyond her dreams. Teachers started mentoring Maiga and giving her advice about other career choices. Because of her strong performance in school they wrote to her father and told him that she needed further education because she was so bright.
“Luckily, my father told my suitor that I was furthering my studies and that he should either wait for me or take back his dowry. He chose to take back the dowry.”
Maiga shudders to think what would have happened to her if her father were poor: “I would have had to go back and fulfill the promise my father had made to my suitor’s family.”
Now a successful lawyer, she attributes her trajectory to chance. “How many girls on this continent get the same chance? How many will stumble upon a mentor who believes in them and encourages them? How many will have fathers who are wealthy enough to send back a dowry?” she asks emphatically. Maiga is dogged in her conviction that all girls—irrespective of the part of the continent they come from—need an equal shot at fulfilling their potential.
“I consider it a tragedy that girls even here in Kenya do not have an equal chance at breaking the glass ceiling of where they were born just because governments do not have the political will to ensure that it is possible for all girls to get an education.”
Ironically, as I was interviewing the Commissioner, news was breaking about a nine-year-old in Samburu who had been forced to live with a 78-year-old man as his wife. The girl was rescued by Josephine Kulea, the Founder of Samburu Girls Foundation.
These issues in Kenya and all over Africa are what inspire Commissioner Maiga. “We need institutional structures that allow for mentorship. There is no equality of mentorship. If you are rich it’s easy. You are exposed to many things, but when you are poor everything happens by chance. No one should live by chance,” she says.
Commissioner Maiga was instrumental in forming the association of women lawyers in Mali. Her work has focused on discriminatory laws and advocating for their repeal. She served as a magistrate for 20 years before being nominated as a special rapporteur at the African Union.
“No one should live by chance.”
She notes that even at the highest policy levels there is still a lot of chauvinism. Passing the African Protocol took a lot of work. She emphasizes that while there is progress, “more is needed in the implementation and actualization of all the rights that the protocol has given to women, including reproductive rights.” For example, many countries like Kenya have progressive laws around female genital mutilation, but fall short on implementation and enforcement.
Does she think that child marriages will be history in Africa? Says Maiga, “Step by step we will get there.”
She adds that in Africa, children’s rights are neglected and there is a culture of silence around these rights. She believes that schools can play an important role in educating children about their rights—including their sexual and reproductive rights—and helping them to access a better future. She is unequivocal that child marriage is one of the worst and most harmful practices that lead to early pregnancy, adverse health conditions and death—tragically hindering the potential of girls. She is equally committed to unraveling the legal, cultural and socio-economic barriers that contribute to its persistence.
“Where would I be if my father was not able to return the dowry to the family that I had been betrothed to?”
Florence Machio is a media, gender and health communications expert. She is currently the supporting editor for The Gazette Weekly in Nairobi.