The statistics tell a sobering tale. Burkina Faso has the 7th highest rate of child marriage in the world. More than half of all women were married before the age of 18 and 10% before age 15. Some girls as young as 11 are forced into marriage. Burkina Faso also has one of the world’s lowest rates ofcontraceptive use – only 17% of women. Many are denied contraception or use it in secret, out of fearof their husbands or in-laws.The end result is that by the time they are 19 years old, most girls are married, and nearly half of them are already mothers. They are raising children when they are still children themselves, in a country withone of the highest rates of maternal death in the world.
Grace on the frontline of the struggle for sexual health and rights in Burkina Faso
But within this bleak picture are spots of light, like candles in a dark room. These are the people – the women and girls – whose stories illumuninate alandscape dominated by such stark realities. They have endured, escaped from, witnessed or fought against the trampling of their most intimaterights – the rights that concern their bodies. The right to make their own decisions about love, sexuality,contraception, marriage, motherhood. The right to know enough to make those decisions. The right to the healthcare and other services they need to act on those decisions. The right to live in safety, dignity and free from fear when they make those decisions. They are often the casualties, sometimes the victors and always the sheroes of this very intimate war in which their bodies are the battleground.
Early and forced marriage violates the human rights of girls
Although early and forced marriages are prohibited by law, these laws are not strictly enforced in Burkina Faso where marriage is only recognized where there is a state issued marriage certificate. Traditional and religious marriages are widespread, but are not officially recognized by law. According to the law, these marriages are free unions without any legal value. According to Article 233 of the Code for Persons and Family (Code des personnes et de la famille), only civil marriage before a civil status is recognized by law.
There is tremendous pressure placed on girls to not complain to officials when forced into early marriage. In cases where complaints are filed, investigations are slow and the victim of forced marriage is at left at risk of double penalty: forced marriage and lack of justice.
The risks associated with such marriages are many for girls. They suffer sexual violence and frequently endure egregious violations of their sexual and reproductive rights. Many are physically immature and are at risk of death during child birth, or experiencing life threatening and life changing health conditions, such as obstetric fistula. Obstetric fistula is a child birth injury that can result from obstructed or protracted labour. It leaves the woman or girl incontinent of urine or faeces or both. According to a Burkina Faso health expert, “women who have the fistula are often the very young women who are married very early, before 15 for example, who try to deliver at home”.
According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child the legal age for marriage should be 18 for both boys and girls. However, in Burkina Faso the legal age at which girls can get married is 17 years whilst that for boys is 20 years. Special dispensation can be sought from the court for marriage at a younger age; below the age of 15 for girls and below the age of 18 for boys. The age limit established in Burkinabe law is not only discriminatory under international law, but is also largely ignored in practice, with many girls far younger than 17 married in traditional marriages.
Forced and early marriage constitute a serious violation of girls’ human rights. Several international and African human rights treaties and instruments condemn early and forced marriage and/or establish 18 years as the minimum age of marriage. The specific right of the child (a person under 18years old), and the girl-child in particular, to enjoy her human rights, and therefore not to be married off, has been addressed by several major UN treaties and their corresponding treaty monitoring bodies. Burkina Faso has for example ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (Maputo Protocol) and African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. Both of these speak to the protection of children (under 18 years old) from early and forced marriages. Burkina Faso is bound by these laws treaties and agreements to addressing early and forced marriage.
Hope for real change
In response to pressure from letters and actions from activists around the world, Burkina Faso’s Ministry of Justice, Human Rights and Civic Promotion in Burkina Faso recently committed to raise the legal age of marriage for girls to 18 years and to ensure that forced marriage is clearly defined in Burkina Faso’s criminal code. The government also committed to introducing free healthcare for pregnant women in an effort to reduce the number of maternal deaths. While these promises are a step in the right direction, we need your help to ensure these plans turn into real action.