Photo: Unicef/Danny Twang
Aged 18, Assiba hails from Klouékanmé in the south-western part of her west African homeland and has never been to school. Her father died when she was small, and she lived thereafter with an aunt.
The latter decided, when her niece was 15, that she should be married off to an older man, a stranger. He sold petrol smuggled from Nigeria – a common trade in Benin. Assiba rejected the match, but the man concerned continued to visit her and her aunt. One day, the girl was asked to visit a relative – but this was a trap.
She suddenly found herself locked in a room in the man’s house. Nobody answered her cries for help, and she thought in great despair that there was no way out for her. After several hours, however, she managed to break open the door and escape from the house. She ran to the police station and reported what had happened.
Her aunt was arrested and found guilty by the court in Abomey, while Assiba was placed in the Caritas Girl’s Centre in the same city. Eventually, she secured a place in the vocational training centre run by the Girl’s Centre of the Holy Family in Bohicon. She is now training to be a tailor.
Assiba has had no contact with anyone from her home town, and wants to forget the past. She admits to having been through a difficult time.
“But my goal now is to qualify as a tailor and open a shop to earn my own living,” she says. “I’m developing my skills, I feel self-confident, and I’m grateful to everyone who has helped me.”
Child and forced marriage is still practised in rural areas of Benin, and particularly in certain northern regions. Nine per cent of girls and one per cent of boys are married before they reach 15. For 18-year-olds, the proportions are 32 and six per cent.
In addition, polygamy remains widespread, with 41 per cent of women living in polygamous marriages and 19 per cent of men having several wives or concubines. The risk of physical, mental and sexual abuse is high in such relationships.
The minimum age for marriage in Benin is 18, and a new Children’s Act passed in 2015 has banned child marriage without permission from the appropriate authorities.
Unicef collaborates systematically with government and other partners to combat child and forced marriage, and has also supported the formation of a national coalition to end this practice.
A number of organisations receive backing from Unicef for their efforts to prevent such marriages and to deal with their consequences. Caritas, in particular, seeks to offer accommodation, food, clothes and medical care to vulnerable and at-risk children and young people. This organisation also works to improve conditions for children’s services in Bohicon and to buy in equipment like sewing machines for vocational training. A total of 70 children have so far received help from Caritas, with Unicef providing substantial support to give these youngsters a new start in life.
The Kavli Trust has been backing the UN organisation for many years, and recently renewed this partnership.