A young woman with a sparkly crown and a bright smile stands tall in a bright dress and a satin sash. Her smiling mum stands nearby. She looks proud. And well she might be. The young woman is called Mounina. She is from Kayes, Mali, (a swelteringly-hot city on the Senegal river) and she is speaking out to help other girls who, like she once was, are at risk of being given in marriage at a very young age.
For millions of girls and women around the world, child marriage – whether forced or arranged – is a situation that robs them of opportunities and education and often leaves them vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV).
Miss Mali 2023 first runner up: winning a beautiful platform
Realising it was an effective platform to speak to the exact audience who needed to hear her message, Mounina’s determination, courage and passion led her to enter a local beauty contest.
And she won! By entering – and winning – the crown of MISS ORTM-Kayes 2023, Mounina won the opportunity to travel to Bamako and compete in the national contest for Miss Mali 2023. She was named first princess and, whilst the beauty pageant industry has issues all of its own to address, for 19-year-old Mounina, it has given her a voice on a public stage that not many other platforms would offer to a young woman. It has given her a wider reach for the message that she and her mother have been sharing with young girls and their families for the last five years – of empowerment and opportunity.
However, Mounina’s story could have been very different.
At age 14, she was doing her year 9 at school and, as is often tradition within the community, Mounina’s father was preparing to give her away in marriage. This would have been the end of her education. Mounina loves studying but she’s also a polite and respectful girl who had been brought up to believe, as her father did, that the marriage was the right thing to do.
Journey to Healing and a mother’s love
But Mounina’s mother saw things differently. She disagreed with the idea of giving up her young daughter and cutting her schooling short. Mounina’s father argued forcibly in favour of the marriage, but her mother felt that it wasn’t the right choice. Then, Mounina’s mother attended some training set up by Tearfund’s local partner, Association Protestante de la Santé au Mali/Protestant Health Association in Mali (APSM). The sessions, from a Tearfund programme called Journey to Healing*, talked about the issue of SGBV. In particular, they examined the consequences for women of early and forced marriages. What Mounina’s mother heard raised her hope for a different and better future for her daughter and she approached the project manager for help.