By Kieran Guilbert
MAHOU, Mali, June 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Fatmata was kidnapped from a market in Mali last year, she was scared for her life. When the Malian schoolgirl realised she would be forced to marry her captor, she feared for her future.
The 15-year-old was taken to a village in southern Mali, where she discovered that her abduction - a practice known as bride kidnapping - was fuelled by vengeance. In an earlier raid, Fatmata's brother had himself abducted her kidnapper's sister.
"I was very scared - I cried all the time," Fatmata told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at school in the village of Mahou.
"I didn't like the young man, at all, and I hated the idea of being forced into marriage," she added, fidgeting with her headscarf and glancing around the empty classroom as she spoke.
Mali has one of the world's highest rates of child marriage. Around one in seven girls are wed by the age of 15 and more than half by 18, says the United Nations children's agency (UNICEF).
Child marriages in Mali, and across West Africa, are carried out to strengthen ties between families, alleviate poverty, and avoid the stigma of a girl having sex outside of wedlock.
And in parts of southern Mali, the act of bride kidnapping is rife, and difficult to prevent, activists and local officials say. While some girls escape, or are released, others are forced to wed, made to do domestic work, and kept from their families.
Yet school pupils in the region are striving to save their peers from a similar fate.
Student groups are teaching their classmates about sexual and reproductive health, warning them about child marriage and teenage pregnancy, and helping vulnerable pupils and victims.
Fatmata's month-long captivity ended last year after pupils and teachers at her school worked with the local council and authorities to pile pressure on her captor and his family - leading to her release before she was compelled to marry.
"We are proud to have played a part in preventing forced marriages and negotiating the return of our classmates," said 16-year-old Marceline Moumkana, one of Mahou's peer educators.
FIGHTING FEAR AND SHAME
In rural Mahou - which is 275 miles (440 km) west of the capital Bamako - the issue of child marriage is compounded by the deeply rooted local tradition of bride kidnapping.
The men who kidnap girls to wed may be unable to afford a dowry, or have struggled to find a willing wife, activists say. If the kidnapper has sex with the girl, she could be seen as too tainted to marry anyone else, causing her family to accept it.
"Girls being taken to other villages to be married happens frequently around here ... so it is hard to estimate the numbers," said Sonou Diarra, headteacher of the Mahou school.
Yet there have been no marriages among the 900 or so girls at the school since 2015, when Save the Children launched a region-wide project to improve education about issues ranging from sexual health to forced marriage, Diarra said.
Peer educators in a dozen communities give talks and perform sketches about sex, menstruation and pregnancy, and say they are on hand to educate, advise, and comfort their classmates.
"Some girls are ashamed to go to the clinic for family planning because they are afraid of what people will say - so we go with them," said Djemeba Kone, 18, of Mahou's student group.
These students also help young mothers and pregnant girls in their communities - most of whom have never been to school - by giving them advice about birth spacing and antenatal care.
"Even if we can't stop these girls getting married or having babies young, we can still help to make their lives better," added Kone, wearing a T-shirt bearing the message: 'Menstruation is neither an illness nor shameful, let's talk about it!'.
Boys must also learn about their responsibilities, and the consequences of becoming a father or husband, the students said.
"Girls are keen to learn, but many boys don't want to listen, understand, or take any blame," said Yacouba Sanou, a boy of 16.
Students, teachers, leaders and local authorities are working together to visit men who have taken young girls as brides to persuade them to allow the girls to return home.
"After the girls return home, we offer them medical care and try to ensure that they go back to school quickly ... it's vital for their futures," said Save the Children project coordinator Yahid Dicko.
A Save the Children index ranks Mali third bottom of 172 nations measuring the extent childhoods are threatened by factors from child marriage and teenage pregnancy to being out of school.
In southwest Mali, cracking down on child marriage is tough given its deep roots amid close knit communities, said Mamadou Sanou, a member of committees for education and child protection in Mahou.
It is seen as a custom, rather than a crime, he added.
The legal age of marriage in Mali is 16 for girls and 18 for boys. But girls may be wed at a younger age under customary and Sharia law, and religious weddings are far more common than civil marriages across the mainly Muslim nation, activists say.
"Mayors and leaders need to act ... but it is hard for them when they are so close to their communities," Sanou said.
Amid a culture that has denied many of her female relatives and friends an education and choices in life, Fatmata is relieved to be back in school.
"I am so happy to have my education back, my future back, and to choose my own husband one day," she said.
(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)