Story and photos in partnership with Tostan.
Fanta Mballo, 18, lives in Kolda, Senegal. She was able to avoid child marriage — despite multiple proposals and her parents’ encouragement to marry one young man — in order to stay in school. She wants to become a nurse, because she says there are a lack of healthcare workers in her community.
Everyday, I get up very early in the morning. I revise my [schoolwork] exercises a little, I sweep the house, I go and get water, wash the bowls, wash myself, and go to school.
We don’t have electricity here, so it’s very difficult to study. I plug the light into the solar panel so that I can have light at night and I can learn.
Avoiding child marriage
It’s different now from what it used to be. Before, they would marry us very young and without having been to school. But it’s not like that any more in the village: Now they allow girls to study.
When I was 13, three men came to my home to ask to marry me. I refused. My parents wanted me to marry the last one. I explained to my parents, “I’m 13 now. If you marry me, it will be very difficult for me with a child. And secondly, I don’t want to get married, and I also want to learn at school. If you marry very young, you can’t go to school. You have to stay at home. So that’s no good.”
Now they have accepted because I explained to them all the consequences of forced marriage, and of failing to educate your daughters. Because today, you have to let girls go to school.
It’s very important. I told them, “If I can carry on studying until I find what I am looking for in life, that’s really important, but if I marry at 13, it’s not good.” Education gives me many things: If I have what I want today, it’s because I had an education and I managed to get what I wanted. It makes me very proud.
I love studying. My favourite subjects are history, geography, French, and science. I want to become a qualified midwife. Because I’ve seen a lot of difficulties in my community, especially where I live. We don’t have a health centre and all that. There are a lot of problems back home. So that’s what I want to become: a qualified midwife.
The importance of education
I think it’s particularly difficult for girls in Senegal, especially in villages, because they don’t let girls go to school. I see children aged 10, even 8, who don’t go to school, and it hurts! It’s not right. You have to let girls go to school!
Today, education for girls is more difficult than for boys, because girls have to do a lot of work before going to school. They have lots of things to do: Sweeping, washing… lots of things. So it’s much harder for girls to go to school.
If there are more than 130 million girls who don’t go to school, that hurts me. It’s not good. First, because we need equality between men and women. Girls today need to have the same place as boys. I want all girls to have a proper education. Girls who have a good education will be able in the future to get positions to help, to provide services in the community. It’s useful to have a good education.
Girls need to have a lot of knowledge, so that tomorrow, in the future, they can get what they want.
What is it that makes the experience of these young women so different from that of their peers in other villages? Fanta and her parents participated in the Tostan Community Empowerment Program where they engaged in theater, dance, poetry, and song to delve into important topics related to their future. Tostan’s three-year program in national languages guides women, men, and youth through a human rights-based alternative education program geared towards those with no, or very little, formal education.
Together with other youth in their village, Fanta discussed shared values and mapped a vision for community wellbeing at the same time that her parents were discussing and making decisions related to the same issues. Tostan communities make advances in democracy and human rights that shape later sessions on hygiene and health, including those on ending harmful traditional practices such as female genital cutting mutilation and child marriage. The fundamental beliefs and individual and collective agency needed to sustain a movement for formal education is born through this holistic, respectful, and inclusive program.