Sitting in her family’s tent in Mauritania’s Mbera refugee camp, 12-year-old Fatimata concentrates intently as she draws a flower on her school notebook.

Behind her are piled the mattresses and blankets that were to be her dowry, had she not resisted her family’s attempt to forcibly marry her off to a cattle-herding cousin in her native Mali.

“I have never met him and I don’t know his age, but I know he is much older than me,” says Fatimata.

“It was only on the day my uncle from Mali came here that I understood my parents had made arrangements for me. Nobody asked me if I wished to get married. I was so scared I ran away.”

Every year, 15 million girls like Fatimata become child brides. They join an estimated 750 million women and girls alive today who were married before the age of 18.

For refugee families living in poverty with little access to employment or education, marriage proposals can look like their daughter’s only chance for a secure future. In fact, early marriage is one of the biggest threats to their safety.

Child marriage deprives girls of their freedom, health and access to education. It also puts them at significant risk of physical and sexual violence.

Twelve-year-old refugee Fatimata refused to be forcibly married to an older cousin in Mali. © UNHCR/H.Pes

The International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on 25 November – and the 16 Days of Activism that follow – aims to raise awareness of the devastating impact of violence against women and girls, and mobilise citizens and policymakers around the world to bring about change.

UNHCR is committed to ending all forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) – which includes child marriage, sexual violence, human trafficking and female genital mutilation – by working with displaced communities to run SGBV prevention programs and provide support services to survivors.

Shortly after Fatimata ran away to escape her arranged marriage, she was found and brought back to her parents’ tent.

“My uncle tied me up with a rope to make sure I wouldn’t escape again, but I managed to free myself and escape once more to my cousin’s place on the other side of the camp,” she says.

She waited until morning, before heading to the nearest school to look for help.

“When I found Fatimata, she was in distress and had bruises all over her arms and neck after releasing herself from the rope shackles,” says Halima Sidiwa, a Malian refugee who has been appointed to host at-risk children, offering them a safe place to stay while their cases are addressed.

Fatimata’s mother Walet (right) meets with fellow Malian refugee Halima, who hosts at-risk children, offering them a safe place to stay. © UNHCR/H.Pes

Fatimata spent five days at Halima’s place, refusing to go back to her parents until her uncle had left.

“She was terrified, and was crying that she wanted to go back to school,” recalls UNHCR Senior Protection Assistant, Houleymata Diawara. Together with other protection workers, she went to meet with Fatimata’s family.

Among the opponents of the marriage was Fatimata’s mother, Walet.

“Obviously, I wasn’t happy with the idea of giving my daughter away at such a young age and I expressed my discontent, but they didn’t listen to me,” she says.

“When my father learnt about the issue within the family, he warned me not to interfere between my husband and his older brother and let them do what they must.”

After a lengthy process, the protection team and community leaders were able to persuade the family to call off the marriage and allow Fatimata to continue her education in the camp.

“Now that the marriage is off I’m not afraid anymore,” says a smiling Fatimata. “I’m happy I can go to school.”

With the support of UNHCR and the child protection network in Mbera refugee camp, Fatimata escaped a child marriage. © UNHCR/H.Pes

You can help protect displaced women and girls
Find out more

Share this:

facebook twitter

You can help

Make a donation

Every donation makes a real and lasting difference in the lives of refugees.

Organise a fundraiser

Host a bake sale, climb a mountain or do a fun run to raise funds for vital aid.