In her family’s house in a rural village in the district of Baroueli, in the Segou region of Mali, 20 year-old Djeba gives a broad smile as she sits her son on her lap. But behind the smile are memories of pain and trauma.
Djeba was a brilliant student who had big ambitions for her future. But at 14, her dreams of a successful academic career were shattered when her family married her off to a man 17 years older than her.
With no understanding of the implications being married would bring, she moved to the next village to serve as the man’s child bride. Six years later, Djeba now has 2 children - a boy, who is 2, and a girl, who is 4.
Marrying off girls while they are still children is a very common tradition in the conservative area of Baroueli. According to research, over 20% of marriages in Baroueli involve children under 15. These early marriages leave the girls with physical and psychological impacts.
Recounting her ordeal, Djeba compares her life to hell.
"I’m suffering a lot,” she says. “During each of my pregnancies, I fell ill and could not even stand. But my mother-in-law wasn’t moved by this. She used to tell me that I’m lazy. I want to end the marriage. It’s a nightmare for me.”
Such treatment is common for child brides across Mali. Often girls suffer complications during pregnancy as their bodies are too immature to cope with childbirth. In some cases, they have died while giving birth. Most do not go to hospital to seek treatment for post childbirth complications which, if left untreated, can develop into more serious conditions.
Through her involvement with this Plan International Burkina Faso and ERAD, Djeba now goes into her community to speak about the issue of child marriage. She has become an active social campaigner, going from door to door and inviting people to participate in open discussions.
Using initiatives like these, community leaders, traditional communicators, local officials and religious leaders are beginning to understand the negative consequences of early marriage.
Imam El Hadj Koke Coulibaly thinks that behavioural change is imminent. "We understand that this tradition has harmful consequences for girls,” he said. “It weakens couples and does not allow girls to realise their full potential. Most probably, we will open discussions on it in the mosques.”
A proud advocate of preventing child marriage in the village, Iman Koke has ended 15 child marriages over the past year, and works closely in partnership with Plan International to encourage families to learn about the negative impacts of child marriage.