Amina is a young Beninese woman. When she was 14, she left her village to escape a forced early marriage. She found refuge with an association that helped her stay in school. Now she has her baccalauréat and is pursuing studies in communication. She is extremely ambitious and hopes to be a successful entrepreneur so that she can contribute to her country’s economic transformation.
However, stories like Amina’s are few and far between. The fact is that few girls receive the support needed to avoid becoming a child bride. According to UNICEF, three in ten Beninese girls are married before the age of 18, and one in ten is married before her 15th birthday.
Building the self-esteem of adolescent girls must be the first step in shaping a generation of girls with the right to freely decide their own future and effectively combat child marriage.
Between February and August 2019, we piloted the establishment of an Academy of Young Leaders of Benin with the Jeunes filles actrices du développement (Girls as Agents of Development) association. Girls from rural towns in Benin participated in this program, during which we addressed the meaning of dignity and reaffirmed their right to make their own choices, have access to opportunities, and control their own lives.
At the end of this program, the girls were able to speak up and condemn early marriage. They understood that they were not destined to be child brides and that they could fight for their dreams. These girls are now agents of change in their community and are capable of speaking out against and reporting cases of child marriage, which, regrettably, is still being practiced. Because breaking the silence is the first step. Girls must, at all costs, be allowed to assert themselves.
However, justice must also play its role; legal remedies should be favored over amicable solutions. Benin’s laws on violence against children are clear and precise. Yet perpetrators of early marriage are not prosecuted. A center that will monitor and enforce punishments provided by law must be established in order to put an end to the practice of child marriage. This is an essential step to help girls feel supported and muster the courage to raise their voice to speak out against and report cases of early marriage. This center should have a majority of young agents of change and girl leaders.
Girls must stay in school to ensure the sustainable development of Benin and the end of child marriage. Benin has successfully promoted education for all children through the Toutes les filles à l’école (All Girls in School) campaign; however, the real challenge lies in making sure girls stay in school. By providing training to girls to help them engage in income-generating activities or practical training in digital technology, for example, the State will create a new paradigm. And parents will cease marrying off their underage girls to secure a future for them.
Benin cannot develop without developing its female human capital. Like boys, girls are potential agents of development, future entrepreneurs, and wealth creators. Ending child marriage means allowing each girl to be a promise for her country’s future while shaping the present.