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Mother at 14...in a Refugee Camp

Fadimata, holds her daughter Fatim, at a Plan-funded refugee camp in Segou.
Fadimata, holds her daughter Fatim, at a Plan-funded refugee camp in Segou.
March 26, 2013

The conflict in northern Mali has forced hundreds of thousand people out of their homes. Nearly 200,000 are currently living in “exile” in refugee camps in neighboring countries. They are being cared for by humanitarian agencies and host governments. There are things however that money can’t buy and for many refugees in Burkina Faso, the separation from loved ones has left holes that nothing seems able to fill.

It is 9 o’clock in the morning. A tall, lean figure is making her way through the dusty wind in the Mental B refugee camp, in northern Burkina Faso. It’s 15-year-old Fadimata. She seems weary, tired, and stressed.

Fadimata was only 14 years old when she got married. The conflict in Timbuktu broke out just two months into her marriage, forcing her and husband Abdul to flee to neighboring Burkina Faso. For a year now, they have been living in exile in a Plan-funded refugee camp. It is in this strange place that Fadimata had her first experiences of married life and of motherhood.

A Difficult Pregnancy

 

Fadimata found out that she was pregnant, a few weeks after arriving in Mentao B and has gone through a lot before her baby girl Fatim was born.

“Fadimata was admitted several times to the hospital at the beginning of her pregnancy. She suffered from severe morning sickness. At some point, she caught malaria. She was so young. Teenage pregnancies are always a risk. For many young girls like her in Timbuktu, where we are from, pregnancy and childbirth remains a high-risk life-threatening condition,” said community nurse Achtikou.

Having attended to numerous young teenage mothers over the decades, she believes that Fadimata should count her blessings because she has had access to proper health care in the Mentao B camp throughout her pregnancy.

Fadimata’s health was not her only worry when she was expecting and after the birth of her baby. Since she had no family support in the camp, the teenager had to figure out everything that was happening to her on her own. More than once, nurse Achtikou and some of the other women in the camp had to step in to help. On several occasions, she was in tears telling them how much she missed her family and her mother, who stayed behind in Timbuktu.

Like many other new mothers, she admits that the arrival of her “bundle of joy” has turned her world upside down. And evenings are anything but peaceful under her tent. “I often don’t sleep that much. The baby wakes up several times crying and I have to feed her and change her diapers. To be honest, I'm quite exhausted. It is hard to go through this on your own,” Fadimata said.

Having to take care of a newborn and a husband, Fadimata had to grow up quickly over the past year. "Too quickly," she says. Since the beginning of the crisis, in March of 2012, she went from being a normal 14-year-old adolescent girl playing with friends to being a wife and then a mother in less than a year.

The Prevalence of Early Marriage

 

Shockingly, every three seconds a girl is forced or coerced into early marriage – that’s about 200 girls by the time you get to the end of this article or a staggering 10 million per year. "We know from experience that in emergencies the rate of child marriage can often increase. I have seen this in Cameroon. UNICEF has reported it in Niger,” says Katie Tong, a specialist who deals with adolescent girls in emergencies.

More than 140 million girls will marry between 2011 and 2020, according to the umbrella non-governmental organization, Girls Not Brides. That is just over 38,000 per day.

To help curb this trend, Plan launched a world-wide campaign, called 'Because I am a Girl' which aims to eliminate early childhood marriage and empower girls.

Rebuilding Her Life Despite the Challenges

 

Fifteen-year-old Fadimata is already a bride. However, she has not given up completely on her right to be child, even in her complex circumstances. She attends the Plan-funded Child Friendly Space (CFS) in the Mentao B camp. There, always with baby girl Fatim, she enjoys a few moments of adolescent innocence, watching other boys and girls of her age or younger play music and games. “I like listening to the music. It is fun and helps to take my mind off my usual worries," she says.

“At the CFS, we see children and teenagers who are still adjusting to their new environment in the camps. Some of them are still withdrawn from group play and activities. We work with those children to deal with their emotions and rebuild their lives,” says Issa Zizien, Plan's Child Protection in Emergency Coordinator in Djibo.

Fadimata is determined to rebuild her life, too. And the ultimate step for her will be to fill the gap left by her mother’s absence. “I sometimes feel so lonely. I have never felt like this back in Timbuktu. I feel empty. I want to go back to Timbuktu. I just want to go back home; to see my mother and to introduce her to her granddaughter. She knows she has a granddaughter, but it was not possible to send even a photo. Can you imagine what it feels like? I just want my mother to see my Fatim,” she says.

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