A staggering number of Gambian girls face uncertain and bleak futures following disturbing reports that child marriage might be on the rise.
Despite a 2016 law banning the practice, most Gambian girls remain at risk of being married off in their preteens.
According to a new analysis released by Unicef, ten million additional child marriages may occur before the end of the decade, threatening years of progress in reducing the practice worldwide.
In its report, Covid-19: A threat to progress against child marriage, released on International Women’s Day – Unicef warned that school closures, economic stress, service disruptions, pregnancy, and parental deaths due to the pandemic are putting the most vulnerable girls at increased risk of child marriage.
“Covid-19 has made an already difficult situation for millions of girls even worse. Shuttered schools, isolation from friends and support networks, and rising poverty have added fuel to a fire the world was already struggling to put out. But we can and we must extinguish child marriage,” Henrietta Fore, the executive director of Unicef, said.
Former Gambian leader President Yahya Jammeh announced the ban of the practice in 2016, punishable by 20 years in prison for both the husband and parents of the girl being married.
However, five years later, communities in The Gambia continue the practice with impunity.
In the previous year, only two cases of child marriage were reported, official said.
Fallu Sowe, the coordinator of Network Against Gender-Based Violence (NGBV), said the country registered nine cases of child marriage from January to December 2020, according to data on GBV.
He blamed the high number of cases on the impact of Covid-19 in the country.
“We have eight cases of child marriage that were reported as a result of Covid-19,” Sowe said.
He said the statistics on child marriage is known to many but couldn’t explain the lack of prosecution of the cases.
“That’s the unfortunate thing,” he said, “I have not seen any case which has been prosecuted in The Gambia. I knew of cases which were reported to the Social Welfare Department, to the police. They were delt with but not prosecuted,” he said.
He said the ‘maslaha syndrome’ in The Gambia has been setting them back.
A global study by the United Nations and partners showed that the pandemic could result to another additional 13 million cases of child marriages and 2 million more cases of FGM/C by 2030.
A survivor’s tale
Sarah Jah [not her real], is a child marriage survivor who lives in Tawakaltu village in lower Baddibu, North Bank. Ms Jah was married off when she was 14.
She described her current situation as “unfortunate” and relived some of her “horror” of child marriage.
“After developing health complications during the marriage, my husband decided to bring me back to my mother. It was because I had difficulties to conceive” Sarah said.
That was some seven months ago, and up to the time of writing this report, young Sarah remained under he care of her mother, confused about what trajectory life will take her on next.
“It’s been many months since my husband visited,” Sarah said. “So, you have seen my situation.”
Although child marriage seemingly devasted her life and future, Sarah said she is determined to go back to school. She decided to tell her story that others may draw lessons from it, “that they may look before they leap,” she said.
One rural parent in the CRR said he married off her daughter because things were “very difficult” for them during the Covid-19 pandemic. “There was no better way for us to live,” he said.
He said her daughter was a ninth-grade student.
“We believed he can take care of her and our family,” the man remarked.
A youth leader in Toroba, in the Lower Baddibu District, Jayla Bah, said: “We have experienced child marriages during the pandemic. We have experienced it since the closure of schools many months ago. These are very young girls whose parents feel they can’t fulfill the needs of all their children because there is no economic activity. Local markets (lumos) are all closed down and this is where they do businesses to meet their needs.”
The ministry of basic education introduced online classes during the height of the pandemic, however, according to Jayla, they were not effective.
“For the many young people, access was a problem,” she said.