By Zoe Tabary
YAKO, Burkina Faso, May 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Inès Sanso was 15 years old, her family decided she was to marry a man three times her age in Yako, a small town in the rural north of Burkina Faso.
Unable to continue paying for her education, they told Sanso the time had come for her to be a wife and a mother.
Sanso confided in her favourite teacher, Catherine Zoungrana, who, along with other teachers at the secondary school, scraped together around $25 to give to the family.
They convinced Sanso's parents to halt the marriage plans and use the money to pay for her schooling, assuring them it would help her to find a better husband when she was older.
Six years later, Sanso works as a primary school teacher in the nearby town of Ouahigouya. "She is getting married this year, but to a man she loves," Zoungrana told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, glowing with pride.
Sanso's planned marriage was not uncommon in Burkina Faso which has the sixth highest rate of early marriage in Africa. One in 10 girls are married by the age of 15 and more than half by 18, according to the United Nations children's agency UNICEF.
Forced marriage is illegal in the West African nation, but the law applies only to state-registered marriages, rather than the religious and traditional ceremonies which account for most of Burkina Faso's forced and early marriages, said Amnesty International in a report last month.
Spurred on by her successful intervention in Sanso's case, Zoungrana decided to do more to tackle the custom of child marriage in the traditional town where girls often have a husband chosen for them from when they are born.
"In 2012, I started a girls' football club at the school, so that students could openly discuss issues such as sexuality, relationships and marriage," she said, wearing an embroidered blue dress as she enjoys some time off on a public holiday.
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Joining the girls' conversations before and after football practice allows Zoungrana to identify any problems, raise the issue with the student concerned and potentially with her family.
"Girls already discuss some of these issues amongst themselves, but what they're missing is the confidence to bring up the topic with their families," said Zoungrana.
She believes that playing a traditionally male sport empowers girls to stand up for themselves when confronted with decisions their families make for them.
Zoungrana knew nothing about football, but chose the sport for its wide appeal.
"Everyone likes football, and yet girls here just don't play it," she said. She studied for a sports teaching degree in addition to her daily job as a teacher, so she could coach the girls herself.
Starting with 40 girls aged 12 to 23, the club now has 160 student members from four nearby schools.
"I invited school principals from the area to come watch our games," said Zoungrana. "They were skeptical at first - saying it wasn't appropriate for a woman to teach sports - but got curious when they saw how popular the club was."
Her fellow teachers weren't the only ones to voice disapproval. "Parents, particularly the fathers, thought the club would detract their daughters from cooking or taking care of their younger siblings," said Zoungrana.
To convince them, she visited each girl's parents and made a case for joining the club. "They eventually gave in - possibly because they just wanted to get rid of me!" she laughed.
Zoungrana said the football initiative has allowed her to intervene to prevent the forced marriage of three girl students.
But she wishes she could do more. "My one regret is that I'm only insured to teach football to girls who are already in school," she said, sitting inside to escape the searing 49-degree Celsius heat that has left the town's normally bustling streets empty.
"Those that aren't are probably the ones most in need of help."
Worldwide, more than 700 million women were married before their 18th birthday, according to a 2014 UNICEF report. More than one in three of them were married before the age of 15.
Child brides are at greater risk of domestic and sexual violence and HIV, campaigners say.
Early marriage also cuts short a girl's education and can increase the risk of death or childbirth injuries if she has a baby before her body is ready.
"A girl who doesn't know or understand her body is in no position to have a child," said Zoungrana, who encourages her girl footballers to talk openly about sexuality and family planning - and to ask questions.
Fewer than one in six women and girls in Burkina Faso use contraception, dramatically increasing the risk of unwanted and sometimes high-risk pregnancies, according to Amnesty.
It found that at least 2,800 women in Burkina Faso die in childbirth every year, a figure that could be reduced by one-third with better access to birth control.
The football club alone will not end the practice of early marriage in Yako, where under a straw-roofed stall, a lone woman braves the heat to sell a few yellowing cabbages and potatoes.
But Zoungrana hopes her project will at least help girls have a stronger voice in how they live their lives.
"Making your own choices should not be a luxury," she said. "It is a fundamental right."
(Reporting by Zoe Tabary, editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)
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