The thought of spending her life with a man she had never met was too much for Marie.
She was not even present when her family arranged for her to marry a stranger from a nearby village in northern Burkina Faso, and was never consulted about the union.
Desperate, the 20-year-old slipped out of her family home one night last month and walked for hours through the bush to the city of Kaya. Her target: a shelter run by nuns where she could carry on her neglected education. She ditched her phone’s SIM card so her family couldn’t reach her.
“It was my grandfather who wanted to give me in marriage and my parents said nothing,” said Marie, who did not want to use her real name. “They can’t say anything because they can’t disobey him,” she said, biting her nails.
Forced marriages are illegal in Burkina Faso, but they remain common and often involve girls younger than 18. In a poverty-stricken country facing mounting violence by Islamist militants, marrying off daughters means fewer mouths to feed. A bride price or a dowry can bring in much-needed cash or goods.
Yet such unions can lead to early pregnancy, interrupted education and abuse, say rights groups. The western Sahel region south of the Sahara Desert is one of the worst-affected parts of the world, the United Nations says.
According to Burkina Faso’s government, there were over 650 cases of forced marriage and 2,200 child marriages between 2019 and 2021, though this is likely a undercount as many arrangements are carried out in secret.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Going to school has become increasingly challenging in north and east Burkina Faso, where attacks have forced the government to close hundreds of schools and prompted more families to marry off their daughters.
More than 100 young women have sought refuge with nuns at the Sainte Maria Goretti shelter, where Marie will soon resume her studies.
“Some were raped, others were beaten,” said Sister Veronique, who works at the shelter.
Veronique takes care of girls like Evelyne, 16, whose grandfather was going to force her to marry an older man after an attack on their village caused them to flee.
“I overheard this and escaped to come here,” said Evelyne at Sainte Maria Goretti, before walking to school with a pink backpack.
“I am still a child, and on top of that, I want to study,” said Evelyne, also a pseudonym.
Evelyne’s parents found her at the shelter. But social workers convinced them to let her stay to pursue her education.
Sister Veronique says that many girls find it hard to adjust after leaving home, but that they soon flourish.
“Little by little, with time and the help of goodwill … they resume their taste for life.”