Story by Lilliane Pitters
In many parts of rural Mali, children are forced to grow up too soon and play adult roles long before their 18th birthday.
As the sun sets on another scorching day in the village of Kenieba, young members of the Child Protection Club at École Fondamentale de Lafiabougou contemplate their future with remarkable candor and maturity.
“The future is not rosy,” surmises 15-year old Makamba, to collective murmurs of agreement. She adjusts the colourful scarf wrapped around her head and elaborates.
“The government is not doing enough for the people and we ar e left to fend for ourselves,” Makamba explains. “The government should help our parents more, provide amenities, protect children and build more schools.”
The children nod their heads in agreement, as 12-year-old Fanta chimes in. “This is the sixth day that we don’t have running water or electricity,” says Fanta. “That means we’re going to be forced to work over the weekend.”
With Fanta’s words still hanging in the air, the children erupt in frustration, their enraged sentiments flying around the room like a lit firecracker as each child explains how the lack of electricity will lead to spoilage of the vegetables and fresh fruit juices their parents sell for a living. Without this paltry income, the adults will lean on their children to find odd jobs over the weekend to bring in extra revenue. None of the children want to work.
While they feel obliged to help their parents, the children now know that they have rights. They know they should not be laboring in the gold mines and in the farmers’ fields at the expense of their childhood and education. This rising awareness has come from months of participation in their school’s life skills and education-based Child Protection Club. Created by Right To Play as an empowerment platform for children to advocate for their rights and to secure those same rights for other children, the Club, while still relatively new, is a popular addition to the school. It has even brought fame to its young members.
Once a month, the Club stages a theatrical performance for the rest of the school, parents and other members of the community. Apart from the entertainment value, the messages are not subtle and take parents and community leaders to task for failing to protect children from various dangers, like child labor and child marriage.
Their most popular skit, about a girl who is forced out of school and into a marriage, garners many laughs from the audience, but it also carries a dark, fatalistic warning. The teenage girl dies from a subsequent pregnancy and her stricken father succumbs to grief, regret and a heart attack.
Fanta, who plays the daughter, has a wide-eyed, steady gaze and a ready laugh. After the play, she stays close to her best friend Makamba, who is three years older with a maturity that lends credence to her part in the play as the loving mother. In real life and in her role as the mother, Makamba is set against the marriage of her underage daughter and blames her husband when the girl dies.
These dramatic roles speak to the larger issues in the community and culture, where men are still largely in charge and make life and death choices for women, especially their wives and daughters. With the recent play fresh in everyone’s minds, child marriage takes center stage in the growing awareness of the children. They see it as an unnecessary tradition, much like child labor, that must be stamped out. With each play and club meeting, the children grow in their confidence and conviction.
“I am no longer shy in front of crowds,” says 14-year-old Ramata. “It is easy to work as a team, each one has a part to play and together we speak out as one strong voice.”
Ramata says that she is saddened by the marriage of one of her classmates, Khadija, 14, who was married over a year ago. “Her husband is much older than her, so I fear for her and pity her,” says Ramata. “Khadija is ashamed and regrets the marriage, but it’s her parents who forced her into it. The Club came too late for her,” says Ramata, adding that the rest of the Club members are not married.
“Now, girls can refuse to get married,” Ramata explains. “We have learnt how to advise each other not to accept marriage proposals; you can report to the teacher and the teacher will go and talk to your parents on your behalf.”
The children also know how to advocate for their right to attend and graduate from school and to insist on going to school when their parents want them to work. This skill will soon come in handy. With the current lack of running water and electricity, the children know they will be exercising their right to stay home and study and not work. It will be a hard conversation to have with their parents. Fortunately, most of their parents have seen the children’s plays about the importance of education and detriments of child labor.
“We use these plays to educate our parents about topics that are difficult for us to discuss at home,” says Ramata.
For Ramata, Fanta, Makamnba and the other children, participating in the Club’s activities has unlocked their inner strength to challenge circumstances they now view as inherently unjust. United, they are determined to protect themselves and future children.