Story and photos in partnership with Tostan. Photos by Ricci Shryock.
Safi Mballo, 18, lives in Sare Kante in the Kolda region of Senegal. She persuaded her parents that she should not get married, and be allowed to continue her education for as long as possible.
The boys cultivate millet and corn, the girls and women cultivate rice. That’s how it is: We have to live well together, boys and girls, without any problems.
We have some electricity in the village, but we have shortages. But at school we don’t have any electricity. We have water, too — a well — but we don’t have any at school. The pupils draw from the wells here and take water to school.
The village is 7 kilometers away from school. We don’t have bicycles — we have no way of getting there other than on foot.
Before school, the boys just take the bucket to the well, wash, and leave. But before the girls can leave, they have to work a bit. When you’re back home at 2 p.m., you still have to grind the millet, and prepare dinner. And by the time you finish that, if it’s nighttime, you will get tired and then you can’t take your books to learn — all you can do is wash, and go to bed.
My father and mother are farmers. When I grow up, I don’t want to be a farmer. I want to go to school to study until I succeed, so that I can help my parents.
Avoiding child marriage
In terms of early marriages and early pregnancies, when girls here in Senegal are 14 or 15, they give you a husband, and you have to marry him. But I want to study until I achieve something; I don’t want to get married at that age.
My parents let me go to school without problem. I said, “You have to let me go to school, I want to study.” Early marriage is not good for us girls. My father wanted me to get married last year, but I said, “Father, let me study until I can get a diploma.” After, he told me, “Okay, you should study until you tell me you want to get married.”
It’s harder for girls to get an education in Senegal. Once you are married, it’s over. If for example, a girl says, “I have to go to school,” her husband could say, “No, no, your life now is looking after the home, cooking, going to the well. That’s your life now — you mustn’t go to school.” For us, school is finished.
The importance of education
Education can help me. If you haven’t been to school and someone brings a letter, you can’t even read it. But if I study, when someone brings a letter and can’t read it, I can read the letter and explain to them what the letter says.
I’m studying to be a Spanish teacher, a señorita. I want to be a Spanish teacher because of all the subjects — maths, biology, English — it’s the Spanish language that I like. I like the Spanish language a lot. I am happy when I hear a señor or a señorita speaking Spanish.
If I were president, I would say, “Fathers, you mustn’t give your daughters away in marriage too soon; early marriages are not good. Let your daughters study until they find something that they love. It will help the parents, too, if a girl studies until she achieves something.”
I will look for a husband, but not now. Now, it is too soon. First, I will study until I achieve something.
What is it that makes the experience of these young women so different from that of their peers in other villages? Safi 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, Safi 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.