Malian refugee refuses forced marriage in favour of school
Sitting in her family tent in Mauritania’s Mbera refugee camp, 12-year-old Fatimata concentrates intently as she draws a flower on her school notebook.
Behind her are piled the mattresses and blankets that were to be her dowry, had she not resisted her family’s attempt to forcibly marry her off to a cattle-herding cousin in her native Mali.
“It was only on the day my uncle from Mali came here that I understood my parents had made arrangements for me,” she said. “Nobody asked me if I wished to get married. I was so scared I ran away.”
“I now know they had been talking about it for long time before allowing my uncle to come here and take me as a bride for his son, a cousin who is out there in Mali with the cattle,” she added. “I have never met him and I don’t know his age, but I know he is much older than me.”
Mbera camp, Fatimata’s home since the age of six, is located in an arid corner of south-eastern Mauritania close to the Malian border. Following violence that erupted in northern Mali in 2012, the camp provides a temporary home to more than 56,000 Malian refugees, mostly Tuareg and Arab cattle herders who lost their livelihoods as a result of the conflict.
Widespread insecurity in northern Mali continues to trigger fresh displacement. Since January 2018 alone, more than 4,700 new arrivals were registered in Mbera camp, with refugees sharing accounts of threats, extortion and summary executions by armed groups, along with gruelling living conditions in their areas of origin.
Poverty and vulnerability within the camp population have contributed to the phenomenon of forced early marriages. In 2017, 97 cases were recorded by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, with the actual number likely to be much higher. UNHCR, together with partners including UNICEF and Italian NGO Intersos, has established a child safety network to provide protection for children in the camp.
"My uncle tied me up with a rope to make sure I wouldn't escape again."
Shortly after Fatimata ran away, she was found and brought back to her parents’ tent. “My uncle tied me up with a rope to make sure I wouldn’t escape again, but I managed to free myself and escape once more to my cousin’s place on the other side of the camp,” she said.
She waited until morning, before heading to the nearest school to look for help.
“When I found Fatimata, she was in distress and had bruises all over her arms and neck after releasing herself from the rope shackles,” said refugee Halima Sidiwa, a community focal point appointed by Intersos to act as a host for children at risk, offering them a safe place to stay while their cases are addressed.
Fatimata spent five days at Halima’s place, refusing to go back to her parents until her uncle had left. “She was terrified, and was crying that she wanted to go back to school,” recalled UNHCR Senior Protection Assistant Houleymata Diawara, who, together with other protection workers, went to discuss the case with community leaders before meeting with the girl’s family.
The discussions with the family were not easy, but among the opponents of the marriage was Fatimata’s mother Walet. “Obviously, I wasn’t happy with the idea of giving my daughter away at such a young age and I expressed my discontent, but they didn’t listen to me,” she said.
“When my father learnt about the issue within the family, he warned me not to interfere between my husband and his older brother and let them do what they must,” she added. “In our culture, the younger brother must respect decisions taken by an older brother. He had already decided he would take the girl, so I stepped back.”
"Now that the marriage is off I'm not afraid anymore."
After a lengthy process, the protection team and community leaders were able to persuade the family to call off the marriage and allow Fatimata to continue her education in the camp.
“Now that the marriage is off I’m not afraid anymore,” said a smiling Fatimata. “I heard they found another wife for my cousin and I’m happy I can go to school.”
UNHCR Representative to Mauritania Nabil Othman said that the agency and its partners would continue to engage with communities to raise awareness of the issue and try to prevent other cases of forced early marriage.
The presence of a reliable system of referral and protection is crucial to support child empowerment, he said. “Documentation is also a very important child protection tool that allows us to intervene in cases of forced early marriages,” Othman added.
Mauritania has recently started delivering birth certificates to all Malian refugees born in the camp, with proof of age playing a key role in child protection by allowing authorities to identify cases of forced early marriages and other forms of abuse, before gathering evidence against the perpetrators.