At 14 years old, Musu’s family told her she was to be married to a man of 27. She had been a youth advocate against child marriage and found herself soon to be a child bride. A patriarchal society, Gambian fathers and uncles make these decisions while most mothers remain quiet-bound by tradition and often, internal conflict.
Published by: Griots Republic
A shy smile sneaked from the side of the clay brick structure. A round and flawless deep brown face with mischievous eyes that squinted whenever she laughed at my broken attempts at Nyanja. She held hands with a little boy, barefoot and eager to run with the other little children in the distance. He tugged on her arm and she finally let him go. She told me his name was Jacob.
“Is that your brother?” I asked.
Her eyes squinted and she laughed again. “No, he is mine.”
And then it was over. When she turned, I saw the baby- a lump beneath red, orange and yellow printed chitenge material. It was asleep and all that peeked from the cloth was a tuft of kinky hair. The girl I took for an older sister, somebody’s daughter, dutifully caring for her siblings was in fact a wife and second time mother, at 16.
This was my introduction to child marriage, 568 kilometers from Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka. I was at the end of a seemingly endless stretch of dry, brown road that took me to Luangeni village in Eastern Province’s Chipata District. It is rural, with clusters of mud brick, thatch-roof homes spread out between kilometers of miombo and acacia trees. On the drive back, I passed more villages and the landscape gradually changed from rural to town back to the highway home. I thought about my childhood dreams of marriage, a Cinderella-esque fairy tale long since dissipated with age. Every young face and baby-laden frame I passed now made me wonder. How old are you? How did you get here? How has this changed your dreams?
Three months later, I met Musu and she told me everything.
Musu Bakoto Sawo stood amidst a crowd of dignitaries and delegates from over 40 African nations telling her story at the first African Girls’ Summit held in Lusaka, Zambia in late November. She pleaded for the end of the tradition and when she finished and took her seat, she tucked into her friend’s shoulder and cried.
“Let us not call it child marriage because it’s not marriage,” said African Union Goodwill Ambassador and secretary general of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda from the stage. “It is abduction, rape and a criminal act.”
Musu was 10 when she developed a love for activism, joining the child-led advocacy group “Voice of the Young” in her native Gambia.
At 14 years old, her family told her she was to be married to a man of 27. A patriarchal society, Gambian fathers and uncles make these decisions while most mothers remain quiet- bound by tradition and often, internal conflict. Musu was in junior high and thought her world had come to an end. She didn’t eat for weeks.
“The morning after my marriage was consummated I didn’t feel like it was something to celebrate. I was hurting,” she said. “I felt like all my activism didn’t matter since I became a part of what I was advocating against.”
By the age of 22, she was a widowed mother and a student- a law graduate of the University of Gambia and then LLM graduate student at the University of Pretoria. Her husband died in her third year of renal failure. This tragedy and her mandated time of mourning made her degree completion seem impossible.
“Never in a million years would I have thought I’d come this far,” said Musu. “At 14, I was forced to grow up; I became someone’s wife, but education was always the main priority of my life.”
The social activist and lawyer has now made it her life’s mission to show girls and women in Gambia that they too can succeed no matter their circumstances. Currently the program manager at Think Young Women, she speaks and works throughout the country advocating for women.
It is in her country, Gambia, that 36 percent of women are married by age 18 and 76 percent of women are cut, or victims of female genital mutilation. During the conference, the country made headlines after President Yahya Jammeh banned female genital mutilation (FGM) saying it is not required in Islam. The ban is not a law and many advocacy organizations hope the proclamation will lead to a domino effect amongst other countries on the continent.
Besides governmental law, the law of the land makes fighting the issues a sensitive matter. It is a double-edged sword of young advocates opposing the customs and the older community seeking a space for long-entrenched tradition. When Musu returned from Zambia, her mother-in-law was not interested in discussing child marriage and specifically FGM.
“You have succeeded in bringing an end to a culture that we so value, something that we are religiously obligated to perform,” said her mother-in-law.
At Think Young Women (TYW), Musu and her board advocate for ending child marriage and FGM in addition to working women leadership through outreach and mentoring. It is when venturing into Gambia’s provinces that they are met with the opinions of older women.
They are reluctant to talk, seeing TYW and advocates like them as harbingers of change and immorality. To these women, child marriage is tradition and customs like FGM reduce female promiscuity. Despite the dispelling of the myth that FGM is a religious custom, these women still believe it is an obligation- the distinction between culture and religion long ago blurred.
The negative effects of the customs are undeniable and visible from The Gambia to Zambia. Girls who marry before age 18 are more likely to experience unwanted pregnancies and less likely to complete primary and secondary school. Musu threatened suicide if her husband and his family, whom she moved in with after marriage, didn’t allow her to continue her studies.
The health consequences of early and forced marriage range from a high percentage of physical, mental, emotional and sexual abuse within the union to obstetric fistulas- a common condition in young mothers where a hole between the vagina and rectum or bladder caused by prolonged obstructed labor leaves a woman incontinent of urine or feces or both. The four types of female genital mutilation further complicate sex and delivery.
Practiced in at least 28 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia. The circumcisers are often community women and relatives, who have themselves been cut in youth.
Although FGM also occurs among Christians, animists and Jews, the prevalence amongst Muslim-majority countries had led to the false belief that it is tied to Islam. FGM actually predates Islam and the majority of Muslims do not practice the tradition.
“The Quran preaches peace, not bringing harm to another person,” said lawyer and author of “Delinking FGM from Islam” Sheik Ibrahim Lethome. “I cannot keep quiet when Islam is being misused.”
Every time she has a platform, Musu speaks. She speaks for the 14-year-old child bride she was and for the young girls listening who think their marriage equals the demise of their futures.