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'Two weeks ago my dad married me to a 70-year-old man who already has five wives'

In Burkina Faso, children as young as nine are being forced into marriage.

About two weeks ago my dad married me to a 70-year-old man who already has five wives. My dad threatened me saying, ‘If you don’t go to join your husband I will kill you.’ I spent three days with my other co-wives at the house, then I fled. I walked for three days to get to the centre for young girls here.

THESE ARE THE words of ‘Maria’, then aged just 13 years’ old.

She is one of dozens of children and women interviewed by Amnesty International in the west African country of Burkina Faso who were subjected to – or threatened with – forced and early marriage.

‘Celine’, 15, has a similar story. She described how she was threatened with the traditional practice of ‘bog-lenga’ or ‘bonus woman’, when a bride may also bring her niece to the family of her husband as an additional girl for marriage.

My parents gave me to my aunt when I was little. My aunt decided I would marry a relative of her husband. The man was already married. I said I did not want to marry him. My aunt told me ‘If you flee, we will destroy you’.

Celine fled on her wedding day and returned to her family, but they would not accept her. Instead, she was forced to seek refuge in a shelter.

‘Coerced and denied’

The new report - ‘Coerced and denied: forced marriages and barriers to contraception in Burkina Faso’highlights how many girls, some as young as nine, are being robbed of their childhood as a result of early marriage.

Burkina Faso has some of the highest rates of early and forced marriage in the world, despite it being a criminal offence in the country.

Between 2014 and 2015, Amnesty International interviewed at least 35 women and girls in shelters and communities who escaped forced marriages.

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“All the interviewees described how violence, threats of violence or other types of coercion were used against them,” the report says.

Many girls and women said they were threatened that if they did not accept the marriage, another member of the family would be beaten or banished from the family home, especially if that family member advocated on behalf of the daughter.

‘Noelie’, a 17-year-old girl living in a shelter run by a religious order, told Amnesty:

My grandfather had decided to marry me off to someone older than me, he came with my parents [to tell me]. I told them I would not agree to marry a man that was imposed on me, and who moreover already had a wife and two children. They told me that if I refused to marry him, I would be banished from the village and they would all be done with me.

Noelie fled her home and is now banned from re-entering her village.

Contraception

Access to contraception is also a major issue for women in Burkina Faso.

Nearly all of the 379 women and girls interviewed by Amnesty said they suffer verbal or physical violence when they raise the issue of birth control with their partners. Most resort to using it in secret.

‘Audrey’, a 30-year-old mother-of-three described how her husband flew into a rage when she brought home a condom from a family planning discussion group.

When my husband saw the condom, he accused me of wanting to have affairs. I tried to explain to him how I had got it. He beat me, he punched me in front of the children. He threw the meal I had prepared on the floor. I fled to my uncle’s, where I now live.

Under Burkina Faso law, the age limit for marriage is 21 for men and 17 for women, but the law only applies to marriages registered by the state. Traditional and religious marriages exist largely outside the legal framework.

“Thousands of girls and young women across Burkina Faso are being denied their basic right to choose who and when and indeed if they want to marry,” Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland, said.

The Burkina Faso government has taken the important step of criminalising child marriage. Now it needs to urgently enforce this ban, by ensuring all marriages are registered and checked.

- All names in the report were changed to protect their identities.

Read: Pakistani police stop 10-year-old girl from getting married

Read: ‘They touched our breasts and stomach to see if we were pregnant’

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