Ivory Coast teens choose marriage to escape poverty

Global Press Institute - Mon, 13 Jun 2011 03:35 GMT
Author: By Patricia A. Badou // Global Press Institute
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By Patricia A. Badou Global Press Institute ABOISSO, CÔTE D'IVOIRE , June 13, 2011– Affoué Yobouet, 17, a mother of two, says she doesn't regret choosing marriage over education. She says marrying an older man, who is more than 30 years her senior, was the best option to attain financial security. She lives in a house with 30 of her relatives in Koffikro-Affema, a small rural commune in Aboisso, a department in the southeastern corner of Côte d'Ivoire. Her older sister, two aunts, brothers, cousins, their wives and children share the home that has just three bedrooms, a hall and a large porch. Yobouet says she dropped out of school at age 13 because her uncle, who used to pay for her fees and books, couldn't afford for her to continue to junior high school and high school. Her older sister, Béatrice Yobouet, enters the room during her interview with Global Press Institute. "Madam, don't listen to that stupid girl," she says. "I have advised her, but she will not listen. If for nothing at all, my own life is an example she was supposed to avoid. But she is stubborn and stupid." Béatrice Yobouet says she warned her sister not to follow in her footsteps – choosing early marriage over education – as she has yet to achieve financial stability. She now has four children and has been abandoned by three different men. "I was going out with my teacher in [grade] six," Béatrice Yobouet says. "I got pregnant four times, but only the last pregnancy succeeded and I gave birth to a boy." She says she dropped out of school, although her parents told her not to. She says the teacher eventually left her and their son. "Because I needed money, I decided to go out with a married man, who disappeared after our daughter's birth," she says. "My second son's father decided that he could not marry a woman with already two children and abandoned me and his firstborn." Béatrice Yobouet says she is now rebuilding her life with her third son's father but wishes she – and her younger sister – had stayed in school. "If only I had continued my education, I would not be here with four children," she says. "But I have my present predicaments to contend with every day. But I do not blame her – she has just decided to follow my steps, willingly sleeping around with old men." But Affoué Yobouet says older men are the best bet for financial security. "I just go with who can take care of me," Affoué Yobouet says. "I don't mind who he is or what he does so far as my needs are supplied!" She says her husband, her younger daughter's father, has many farms and looks very young, even though he is 50. She says his children like her and show her respect, and with his help she can also take care of her own children. "I can now feed my children," she says. She says he will also pay her dowry by the end of this year. Women, especially teenagers ages 14 to 18, in rural Côte D'Ivoire say they have a better chance of finding financial security if they marry older men, so many choose to start families rather than complete their education. Doctors say adolescent pregnancy is dangerous for young moms and their babies. Some women say they now regret not receiving an education and strive to make sure their children and younger sibling stay in school. While the government has made public schools here free and has banned child marriage, political instability during the past decade has forced many schools to close. Meanwhile, international and nongovernmental organizations, NGOs, aim to promote education and reproductive health services. Nearly half, 49 percent, of people in Côte D'Ivoire were living in poverty as of 2008, according to a 2011 World Bank report. As violence and policitical instability have increased since 2002, a rising portion of the population, now 13 percent, live on less than $1.25 USD a day. Côte D'Ivoire is off track to achieve universal primary education by 2015, goal three of the Millennium Development Goals, MDGs, a U.N. initiative agreed to by countries worldwide, according to the MDG Monitor. If some changes are made, it is possible for the nation to meet MDGs four and five to reduce child mortality and improve maternal health – which experts say are especially challenges for young moms – but it is currently off track despite improvements. In Côte d'Ivoire today, more young girls receive formal education than in the past. But despite this improvement, few make it past primary school. While 66 percent of girls here enroll in primary school, just 19 percent go on to secondary school, according to UNICEF. Forced child marriages have long been part of the culture here, but a new phenomenon in rural areas shows girls choosing to drop out of school to get married to older men in an attempt to attain financial security. In a survey of 15 girls, ages 13 to 18, from 10 localities in Côte d'Ivoire, nearly half say they have slept with an older man, ranging in age from 20 to 60. They say they prefer older men, as just four say they have had sexual encounters with boys their own age, ranging from ages 12 to 20. Rachelle, 34, who declined to give her last name to avoid problems with her in-laws, comes from Jacqueville, a small island that is a 30-minute drive from Abidjan in southeastern Côte d'Ivoire. After dropping out of school for the man she loves, she says she now has six children to care for while he chases other women. She says he promised her a life in Abidjan, the country's largest city, where he planned to find a job and marry her after he finished school. "I don't really know why I listened to this man," she says. "He was like the answer to my prayers – why will I continue school?" She says he promised her a future of financial security. "My [mum could] not provide my needs all the time, and I could not sit and wait [un]til eternity, so I had to get what I needed by myself and even help her at times," she says. Rachelle's oval face has hardened from several years of work near the fire making attiéké, steamed and dried cassava dough, a popular food here, to sell. She quickly glances at the straw roof of her freestanding shed. Her eyes, which betray her tiredness and regret, look down. Her lips are dry from the hot afternoon sun. "I dropped from school to start selling attiéké so I can support him and take care of myself," she says. "I got pregnant when I was 15 years, but because of his mother we agreed to attribute it to another man whom I managed to sleep with just once." She says she was in love with him and the life he promised her in the big city. "But two years later, I got pregnant again," she says. "This time, his mother got angry and asked him to come back to the village, get himself a farm and work to take care of his family." She says his mother and sisters don't treat her well. "She and the sisters made sure I felt the pain and the shame of not allowing her son to continue his education," she says. "Her decision was more of a punishment than a solution. All my dreams vanished in one day." Rachelle says they now have five "official" children, plus the sixth child they told her husband's family wasn't his. "I am 34 years now, still selling attiéké while he is busy chasing other women," she says. "He does not even have time to train our children when they are back from school or before exams." She says she took care of herself during her last pregnancy because he wasn't around to help. "At least I have my business and have increased it by taking over the farm he inherited from his mother," she says. "I wished [for] a better life for my children, but what can I do? Where will I go with six children?" The adolescent fertility rate in Côte d'Ivoire is high, with 130 births per 1,000 women ages 15 to 19, and 42 percent of women ages 15 to 49 here report bearing children by age 18, according to the World Bank report. Doctors say pregnancies present extra risks to young mothers and their babies. Dr. Réné Oka, a local pediatrician, says that young women rarely have money to pay for prenatal care. Oka says that some have never seen a gynecologist and their children have no medical history. Oka says the young women can give birth to up to seven children – with only half or almost none surviving. She says they become vulnerable to diseases because of a lack of postnatal care. Births to women ages 15 to 19 have the highest risk of infant and child mortality and a higher risk of maternal morbidity and mortality, according to the World Health Organization, WHO, and the World Bank. Negative outcomes of adolescent pregnancy are also associated with many other health problems, such as anemia, malaria, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, postpartum hemorrhage, and mental disorders such as depression, according to WHO. Up to 65 percent of women with obstetric fistulas, a hole in the vagina or rectum caused by obstructed labor, developed them as adolescents. Dr. Aubin Lia Whiva, a gynecologist, says young women here have no or little decision-making power because they depend on the men they live with or date sexually, financially and psychologically. Whiva says they have little say when it comes to sexual interactions because, without educations or jobs, it is the only thing many of them can offer in their relationships. Even when abused or maltreated, they can't go to their families, who will either reject them or encourage them to endure the suffering to keep receiving the financial help their parents can't offer, Whiva says. Young women here bear unwanted pregnancies and have many children because their knowledge of contraception is poor and their power to negotiate is weak. Just more than 10 percent of women use contraception here, according to the World Bank report. Whiva says that even when the women decide to free themselves from their husbands or their husbands die, they receive no support for their children because of neglect from the husband or their in-laws. Djenebou Diarra, who is from Bondoukou, a department in northeastern Côte d'Ivoire, but currently lives in Abidjan, says education is the solution. She says she learned from her mistakes early enough to redeem her children's future. "My children will complete school even if I have to open their heads and insert their books!" she says. She says that she will not tolerate laziness in her children and that all she thinks about is their education. "If my mother [had] had that firm and school-oriented attitude, I am sure my life would have been far better," she says. "I am a smart girl but used shortcuts and ended up far behind where I started, but things have changed. I have started a new life." Sitting behind the oven, she looks at her two daughters, who also have their mother's straight and fierce look in their innocent faces. "I told their father that my daughters will not be like me because life is becoming harder, and if I want them to live a good life, I have to show them how to succeed," she says. "He laughed at me and asked me how this will happen with me having no job." Diarra says she decided to learn how to properly care for children so she begged the headmistress at the local kindergarten to let her clean the school and wash the children's dishes. "There, [I] learned how to change rich people['s] babies, the things they use – diapers, wipers, feeding bottles and the different kind of milk – the time the children eat, play and sleep," she says. She says her friends doubted what she would learn since she was already a mother of two, but she says she observed a lot. "I realized I did not give the minimum to my children," she says. "I was using a large plastic under the cloth on which they sleep so they will not wet the whole mat and make the room smell, while I could have used Pampers if I had the money. I will not even talk of the food." She says the headmistress taught her a lot and helped her to get her first babysitting job in the town, where she earned her own income and learned how to cook foreign dishes. "I was so happy to earn something on my own without turning men around and collecting their money or waiting for my husband now that I am married," she says. She says her father didn't accept her decision to earn her own money but that her mom helped her to plan and choose what to wear. She says her father began to give her a hard time so she moved in with her boyfriend, who married her when she got pregnant to avoid embarrassment. She eventually moved to Abidjan to live with a family and take care of their son, the house and the cooking. "I came to Abidjan in 2008 because the salary is good here," she says. "[The] last two years I learned how to sew after working hours." She says that this is the last family she will babysit for and she plans to move home soon. "Next year I will be starting my own workshop in Bondoukou so I can work and take care of my children," she says. "Their life will be different from then." The government regulated marriage practices soon after independence in 1960. It made the legal marriage age 20 for men, 18 for women and 21 for couples without parental consent. But these regulations are not respected, as many say that marrying young is a part of traditional, cultural practice that the government shouldn't meddle with, leaving the state with little means to control or prevent this phenomenon. In an attempt to deter early marriage, public education here is free and primary school compulsory. But families still have to pay for school supplies and miscellaneous fees, according to UNICEF. Civil conflict since 2002 and a disputed presidential election last year have also caused many schools to close, with nearly 800,000 children still waiting to return to school as of March 2011, according to UNICEF. UNICEF and other partner organizations are working to help schools reopen. There are also numerous NGOs working for women's rights, girls' education and rural development. For example, Aholié Côte D'Ivoire focuses on education, training and protection for women and children, and Animation Rurale de Korhogo promotes rural development, health and literacy for women. Higher levels of women's autonomy, education, wages and labor market participation are the keys to improved reproduction health outcomes, according to the World Bank report. It also recommended that health systems provide a basic package of reproductive health services, including family planning, to delay early childbirth. Read the original article here.