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Mothers' Associations Help Keep Girls in School

The mothers of Tandatedji AME want their daughters to be educated and are willing to challenge tradition to see that they are.

In the district of Karimama, Benin, fathers often promise daughters—as young as five or six—as brides to men who are decades older. This cultural tradition gains the girl's family favors and gifts from the suitor, who hoes their field, buys the girl clothes, and pays a bride price, which, when paid in a public ceremony, officializes the marriage in the eyes of the community. As economic times worsen in this already poor area, the practice increases.

Once married, most girls stop going to school. Even if mothers would like to protect their daughters from early marriage and keep them in school, mothers have little say because, when they were married, they too moved from their family villages, so are considered outsiders.

The organization of mothers' associations, established throughout Benin by World Education's Girls' Education and Community Participation (GECP) project, has given women a way to stand up for their children because, as a group, their power is greatly increased.

The mothers' association (AME in French) in the isolated village of Tandatédji in Karimama is making a difference in the lives of their young betrothed daughters. At the beginning of the last school year, seven sixth-grade girls did not arrive on the day of enrollment. The AME asked the school director to investigate, and he, along with GECP's local partner, four mothers, and the president of the parent's association (which is run by fathers), learned that the girls had entered marriage arrangements. Because bride prices had been paid, this newly-formed group of advocates could not convince the husbands' families to let the girls finish primary school. Undeterred, the group approached the village chief, who was able to convince the husbands to be patient, and even got them to agree to allow the girls to go to secondary school if they passed the qualifying exams.

Although the marriage contracts still must be fulfilled, these girls will be educated and better able to take care of themselves and their children. The cooperation between the school administration, the local authorities, and the parents was remarkable. And the mothers' association's bravery and persistence proves that change is possible, even in highly traditional environments.