Story by Julie Younes and Ruth Salmon, Tostan Volunteers in Kaolack region of Senegal

Several months ago, three separate suitors came to ask for Ayset Diallo’s hand in marriage.  Ayset, a 14-year-old girl living in the village of Diamwély Peulh, Senegal, refused each one of them, as did her father and mother. All three family members attend Tostan classes, where they have learned about the health risks of child marriage and how it threatens a girl’s chance of getting a good education. They cited this new knowledge as the main reason for rejecting the suitors.

Ayset and her family have been participating in a special project that Tostan has been running in the Kaolack region of Senegal for the past three years. “Empowering Communities to Empower Girls,” conducted in partnership with the Nike Foundation , aims to improve the lives of adolescent girls in rural communities. In the project, class sessions focused on gender norms are included in Tostan’s existing Community Empowerment Program (CEP). Using a culturally respectful, human rights-based curriculum, the project seeks to reverse social and gender norms that limit girls’ development.

Child marriage is a common outcome of gender social norms and is practiced for a variety of reasons, such as relieving financial burdens, improving the parents’ socioeconomic status, or out of fear of pregnany out of welock or other consequences of sexual activity outside of marriage. However, marrying at a young age usually prevents girls from staying in school.

Ayset’s father Amadou believes that people in Diamwély Peulh are now seeking to end the practice since they now understand how harmful child marriage is for a girl’s education. He explained that he personally wants his daughter to continue her education, so that she can help the family and fulfil her own needs. He said that before, many villagers did not see the value in education – yet since the arrival of Tostan, this attitude has changed significantly. People are willing to sell valuable possessions such as chickens to get money for school supplies, claimed Amadou.  Even if his daughter was excluded from state school, he would find a way to pay for private education.

Khady Diao, Ayset’s mother, admitted that before Tostan she would have considered giving her daughter away in marriage while  Ayset was still young. However, many in Diamwély Peulh have witnessed the negative consequences of child marriage, including pregnancy problems among young mothers in their village. When the Diallo family refused Ayset’s suitors, they were able to justify their decision by citing these cases, as well as health and hygiene information provided by Tostan. Khady also described how before Tostan, girls were generally not given a say in their marriage age and partner – indeed, they were often beaten if they refused to marry. This has begun to change, as Ayset’s experience demonstrates.
According to Ayset, the main reason she refused to marry was to continue her studies. As the oldest child, she wants to help provide for her parents, and dreams of someday becoming a teacher. Happy with her decision to reject the suitors, she does not want to marry until she has finished school and is at least 20 years old.

The “Empowering Communities to Empower Girls,” project, also known as CEP+, concluded its final year in July 2011. Tostan is now evaluating the results of CEP+ through surveys, focus group discussions and workshops.