20-year-old Djeba gives a broad smile as she sits her son on her lap. But behind the smiles are memories of pain and trauma. Living in her family’s home in rural Baroueli, in the Segou region of Mali, Djeba is trapped in a loveless marriage to a man over twice her age.
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.
Within a matter of weeks, she was transplanted to a village miles from her own home to live with a man she had never met before as his child bride.
Six years later, Djeba now has two children – a boy, aged two and a girl, aged four.
This tradition of marrying off girls while they are still children is unfortunately still very common in Baroueli. According to research, over 20% of marriages in Baroueli involve children under 15.
For most girls, they are left physically and psychologically traumatised.
“I’ve suffered a lot, and I will continue to suffer until my marriage ends”, says Djeba.
During both her pregnancies, she fell ill repeatedly and for days and weeks on end, couldn’t even stand by herself.
That didn’t matter to her new mother-in-law who probably suffered the same fate as Djeba when she was only a child too.
“She used to tell me that I’m lazy. I want to end the marriage. It’s a nightmare for me”, she says.
The trauma doesn’t end at their wedding for girls like Djeba.
Putting a wedding ring on a young girl’s finger doesn’t make her ready to have children. Most suffer painful complications during pregnancy as their bodies are too immature to cope with childbirth.
Sadly, in some cases, child brides have died from giving birth at too young an age.
Despite centuries of tradition, attitudes are changing in many Malian communities to Child Marriage. Working with a local non-governmental organisation ERAD (Studies, Research and Action for Sustainable Development), Plan International has implemented a campaign to reduce early marriages in 26 villages in Baroueli.
Djeba is now an active community campaigner against Child Marriage. She now goes community to community, door to door, to speak out against child marriage.
Ambassadors like Djeba are changing the attitudes and opinions of community leaders, local officials and religious leaders. They are seeing and understanding the damaging consequences of early marriage.
Djeba prays for an end to her marriage. She knows that her only hope is if her local Imam El Hadj Koke Coulibaly annuls it. He says:
We understand that this tradition has harmful consequences for girls. It weakens couples and does not allow girls to realise their full potential.
A proud advocate of preventing child marriage in the village, Iman Koke has ended 15 child marriages over the past year. Djeba waits in hope for the day her nightmare ends.