What Will It Take to End Child Marriage in Senegal?

In early January, shortly before the ongoing African Cup of Nations (AFCON) kicked off, one of the most decorated Senegalese footballers, Sadio Mane (31), became the topic on various internet forums upon his wedding to 18-year-old Aisha Tamba.  Outside his national and international football accolades, Mane is well known for his generosity and commitment to his home, where he runs several charity initiatives, including hospitals and a football pitch, to elevate his community. His philanthropic efforts are unrivalled.

When I heard he was getting married, I was happy and excited for him. Then I learned the age of the bride, and the curtain fell. No matter how amazing Mane is known to be, I was concerned. Senegal has an unhealthy relationship with its girl children. The country celebrates child marriages daily, and the obsession with purity culture and girls’ virginity put Mane’s union in the spotlight, with many in the country celebrating, but we must not fail to question. 

In Senegalese public forums, the bride was praised for ‘dressing modestly, being young and a virgin’.  The discourse was heavy on encouraging men to marry her type of girl over the ones who are exposing their bodies on the internet. The deeply rooted hatred towards women that we know very intimately was back in full glare coming from men who never miss an occasion to compare and classify girls and women from the purest to the ones deemed less pure and often named “whore.” 

Many argued Mane is a rich football player whom every family dreamed of having as an in-law, that he married a young girl who is a virgin and has kept herself pure and made her family proud. The public discussion of a young woman’s sexual life from cultural expectations of purity exposes all you need to know that is harming girls in Senegal. We know that the concept of purity of a girl, never a boy/man, is rooted in sexual control and patriarchal violence. Virginity is a socially perverted construct. To many here, a young girl must be placed under male protection /pleasure in marriage quickly to ‘protect’ her from predators. This also comes from a society where sexual abuse is so rampant and it was only in 2020 that we criminalised rape after years of women’s rights activists demanding.

We then saw negative and violent reactions deployed against anyone who dared to criticise Mane’s union. This came from a deeper issue with Senegalese society wanting to keep violating its young girls and refusing to name abuse as it is instead of validating it through the route of marriage. 

Marriage as the sole ambition of girls

Mane’s union may have sparked controversy because of his popularity, but he performed the exact role most men in Senegal do daily. He is not an anomaly. Older men courting adolescents or teenage girls and families being proud and praising girls and readying them for a suitor from ages as early as 13 is an everyday reality.

While attitudes towards child marriage vary across ethnic groups in Senegal, the main socialisation is still that girls must be married off as soon as possible.

It doesn’t matter what laws say; they are at face value and cannot even protect a girl who rebels against these norms.  About 31% of girls in Senegal are married before their 18th birthday, and 9% are married before the age of 15. In comparison, only 1 percent of Senegalese boys are married before age 18.  The impact of courting and cajoling young girls with the prospect of marriage is significant in rather negatively shaping their future. A heartbreaking example was seen in a video when Mané’s bride, Aisha Tamba, returned to her school and was celebrated by hundreds of her high schoolmates.

This practice of pulling young girls out of school when a man expresses interest in marrying them is prevalent in Senegal. It follows a script where girls are not allowed to consider any other role besides being a bride as soon as they hit adolescence. The celebration of Aisha’s marriage was not solely due to Mane’s fame; similar celebrations occur within families every time an adolescent girl is betrothed. 

Rather than questioning older men’s interest in marrying children, our society actively participates in these predatory behaviours by validating them through marriage. Senegalese men and society unite in the belief that they should marry a child who still lacks knowledge of her rights and whose life isn’t yet quite figured out. This culture perpetuates a system of gendered power imbalance where men expect to be treated as chiefs throughout their lives, never facing any challenge to that power. 

In a patriarchal society, the primary concern is to grant men control, and the lives of girls and women revolve around serving them. Early marriage leads girls to abandon their formal education, if they had access to it in the first place, due to domestic and marital responsibilities. As a result, they miss out on acquiring knowledge and life skills. They are unable to develop social skills or establish supportive networks with their peers, remaining isolated within their homes. It is this isolation that makes them highly vulnerable to domestic violence as women. The lack of formal education also has intergenerational consequences. Girls whose mothers married early and lacked education or employment opportunities are more likely to follow the same path, perpetuating the cycle of poverty in subsequent generations.

This is also a regional issue in West and Central Africa, which has the highest prevalence of child marriage in the world and is home to nearly 60 million child brides. Four in 10 girls in the region are married before they turn 18. 

“Their rights to a childhood have been trampled on: They have not been allowed to be children”, according to a 2022 report by UNICEF.

Not new to me

Child marriage is prevalent in Senegal, including within my own family. Recently, I witnessed a 17-year-old girl being married off to a man she had never met, who was ten years older than her. Despite my anger, fear, and disappointment, I was made to feel like the problem. I was told that this marriage was necessary to protect her from unwanted pregnancies and that the man would provide her with a better life in another country. I have struggled to understand how this could happen again in my family, as it had already occurred with her older sister’s marriage four years prior at 18 years.

Both times, I vehemently opposed the child marriages and refused to participate, but I could not stop them. The 18-year-old girl’s marriage took a dark turn when her husband physically abused her. Divorce followed, and it was later discovered that the man had deceived our family by hiring people to pose as his family during the marriage proposal. This incident highlights the gullibility of our society when it comes to marriage. Sadly, after her marriage ended, the girl never fully recovered. She faced stigma as a divorcee, later she was diagnosed late with liver cancer and passed away. Despite this tragedy, my family still chose to marry off her youngest sister.

Marriage is always a good thing for our society; it doesn’t matter if you die from it as a woman. We even have a saying in Wolof when marriage is being conducted, which translates to “ I am giving you my daughter and all I am asking you in return is her bones.” This means that a woman has to stay in her marriage regardless of how much she may suffer in it, even if that means death for her.  The second child marriage went ahead and my heart was shattered by the fact that all the dreams she had for herself, knowingly or not, are never going to happen. Her life now is about her husband’s dreams, about what he wants for her life. I hope I am wrong and that she will have an amazing life flying with her wings, but I am not as naive as my family. She may make it, but she will never have the life she chose for herself as long she remains in this unequal marriage. 

In our society, men expect control over women’s sexuality and everything is put in place to prevent women from arriving at the concept of desire, pleasure and self-actualization. Women exist to pleasure men while they are unchecked about women’s pleasure. I have positively influenced my family with my feminism and heart for social justice and I thought we had gone far from this. That women in my family could be free to make their own choices and be spared the weight of making their whole lives about marriage but I was so wrong. 

End purity culture

No matter how much we have been fighting, the patriarchy keeps using marriage as one of its biggest weapons. Men work hard to make marriage the ultimate dream for young girls and women so they can control them better. In the Mane union debate, many pointed to the legal age being 18 years, but we know he didn’t happen to meet an 18-year-old just like that. If the girl is married at 18 years old, at what age did the man who is marrying her start laying eyes on her and sexualizing her body? How many young girls marry their peers? 

Most child marriages in Senegal are between teenage girls and men way older than them.  Families often use their young girls as a means to get out of poverty by marrying them to men who have the means to buy them off.

Girls’ lives are seen as something you can transact. We maintain a lie that marriages give girls and women a better future, but we have way too many girls abandoned by their husbands once they bear children and their bodies change from child to adult. 

To those who maintain that marrying girls off protects them against predators, who are those predators?  As a society, we need to question our biases when it comes to the future we want for our children, particularly girls.  We are failing miserably to give them the right to imagine a future. Whether boy or girl, children are very early on introduced to the idea of marriage as life’s prize.   We need to work harder to stop burying the dreams of our girls, to protect their rights to be children and not sexualised and sold into marriages. What kind of future do we have when children are denied education and generational cycles of violence are repeated and excused?

I hope both of these marriages, Mané’s and the member of my family, have a very happy ending, for the sake of these young girls’ lives. I wish better for any girl around the world who is suffering from child marriage and survivors of child marriage. We must do better by the next girl.  I hope to see a day when girls are being empowered to be equal, free from the violent male gaze abated by patriarchal cultures, and being socialised in a way that they, too, can be more and dream beyond marrying in their teens. 

Aissatou SENE is a Senegalese feminist activist and fashion designer based in  Los Angeles. She fervently advocates for the rights of marginalized communities in Africa, with a particular focus on West Africa. Working as a freelance consultant for various organizations across Africa and worldwide, she is devoted to making a positive impact on the lives of women and girls. 

1 Comment
  1. Amazing article and very informative. Hope raising awareness brings about much needed change. May we all be free…

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