Shame. Worries about being bullied. Prejudices and restrictions. Girls, especially in developing countries, have many reasons to hide their menarche from their family or community. For Musu Bakoto it was the fear of having to marry and missing out on education. An unusual situation? Unfortunately not. In The Gambia there are many child brides. Soon after a girl starts menstruating, she’s often married off to a complete stranger.
Menstruation symbolises maturity
‘Menstruation in Gambian society symbolizes maturity, womanhood, and the capacity to conceive; it basically translates to the readiness of a girl to engage in sexual activities. It is also widely believed that the female body grows to a child-bearing stage at this time. Hence, it sends a signal that once a girl begins to have her period, she should be married off for fear of bringing shame to the family by getting pregnant out of wedlock,’ explains Musu Bakoto in her personal narrative in The Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies (you can order a print copy or download this amazing +1,000 pages open access handbook for free here). Although she knew about menstruation from conversations with older girls and understood that it was normal, she hid it for two years. ‘Had my cousin not seen a blood stain on my shorts one evening, my mother might still not have known.’
Menarche? Time to get married
She concealed her menstruation because she didn’t want to leave school and become a housewife. ‘Once a girl reaches menarche, in many communities, especially mine, she is considered fit for marriage,’ explains Bakoto Sawo. ‘In contemporary Gambian society, mothers and aunts begin preparing their daughters and nieces for marriage as soon as they reach menarche. They hold regular sessions during which girls are taught their roles and responsibilities as wives.’
‘Once a girl reaches menarche, in many communities, especially mine, she is considered fit for marriage’ – Musu Bakoto
‘Since our society is patriarchal, women must become obedient partners who live in the shadows of their husbands. As most Gambian girls, I was given numerous sermons on how to be a good wife by pleasing my husband and his family.’ Being forced into a marriage with a man deemed suitable by their parents, child brides in The Gambia are stuck without a future. Staying at home with their husbands, and later their own babies, these children have to abandon school and receive no further education.
Let girls be girls – end child marriage
Musu Bakoto is the exception to this norm. Despite being married off at the age of 14, ‘the much-anticipated suitor came along, met my parents, and asked for my hand in marriage without consulting me, his bride-to-be’, she managed to continue her education. It wasn’t easy, as she had to perform her matrimonial duties as well as following her classes. ‘I had to cook, clean, do laundry and other domestic chores for my husband’s family before going to school.’
Still, the former child bride succeeded and currently campaigns to end child marriage. Despite this practice being banned in The Gambia in 2016, it still happens regularly, with some parents accepting bride prices from suitors as early as when the brides-to-be are toddlers. These children are married off immediately after they reach menarche. Musu Bakoto now runs Think Young Women, an organisation that trains Gambian girls between 12 and 15 on sexual and reproductive health and rights. She shares her story with the goal of ending child marriage completely. Let girls be girls, don’t force them into womanhood.
Want to know more about this subject? Read Musu Bakoto’s entire personal narrative in Chapter 9 ofThe Palgrave Handbook of Critical Menstruation Studies. This open access handbook (1,000 pages!) provides a comprehensive and carefully curated multidisciplinary and genre-spanning view of the state of the field of menstruation studies. A must-read when you work in the menstrual field. Good to know: you can order a print copy or download the handbook for free.