Friday, January 30, 2009

All in a day's work

There are a lot of unquantifiable activities that PCVs do that profoundly change our communities and our lives, and yet are not appropriate for official documentation in our administrative reporting system.

The births I’ve attended for example, I would classify as this kind of activity. They were informal, spontaneous, one-on-one experiences where I was able to “educate” others by living by example. When I worked with the midwives and matrons I was able to expose them to a much kinder, gentler, and even more effective way of coaching women through labor. While I can’t measure the lasting effect of, or ensure transference of any of the behaviors I demonstrated, I hope that at least some of my techniques rubbed off on them.

Today I had a similar experience. It will probably take most of my energy for the next few days, and yet I can’t “get credit” for it. Such is the life of a PCV.

I came home from the weekly market, psyched about buying my week’s worth of bananas and eggs for my breakfasts. I sat down with my sister and our neighbor who is 9 months pregnant. We were talking about when she was due, and I was making sure she was planning on delivering at the health post and not at home. We talked a bit about her due date, how her pregnancy was going, and I let her know that no matter what time of night, she should call on me to be her doula and I would stay with her through the whole thing.

As we talked, my sister mentioned to me that one of our neighbors was being forced into marriage by her mother and had been on hunger strike for 3 days as a result. Forced marriage is illegal, but unfortunately quite common in Senegal, and especially in this region. Girls, especially girls who have never been to school, don’t know that they have resources, that there are people who they can call, who will hold a mediation with the families and will protect these girls from an unhappy life as baby-making receptacles, away from their families, at the beckon call of a husband they don’t love. Maybe it sounds incredibly dramatic, but that is the reality for many a girl/woman in this region of Senegal.

They began to speak in hushed voices. They explained to me that she had been forced into marriage last year and was sent to live with her husband against her will. She spent a miserable month there, and came home, vowing never to return. A year has passed and her mother has been pressuring her to go back, saying that she will abandon her for the rest of her life for disobeying her and shaming their family. Still she refuses and recently the argument has come to a head as her mother is threatening to send her back and she refused to eat in protest to prove her point. She has vowed that even if her mother beats her, kicks her out of the house, or abandons her for life, she will never go back.

Turns out that her husband, is old, I mean really old. And stupid. But he’s got money. Her family is poor. Super poor. They figured, they’d marry her off and then she’d bring money to the family. And he did. He paid the family a ton of money, and off she went, against her will. She ran away once, and finally they forced her to go. He already has a first wife, a super old woman, and many children. All of whom are even older than her and have already had children! Gross huh?

I made it quite clear to my sister that this was unacceptable, that it was in fact illegal, that she was an adult and could not be forced to return. I let them know that I was angry, and then I zipped off to my room to start making phone calls.

Here’s where it gets messy. Seriously, it’s a problem with no end…It will just frustrate you, so if you’re up for it, keep reading. If not, then stop now.

I called my good teacher friend who was a guest panel speaker at my girl’s leadership conference who works to prevent forced and early marriage. She was thrilled I called and gave me a couple of phone numbers. One of which was the phone number of the regional children’s rights lawyer in the regional capital. He is the one in charge of all the cases relating to children including female genital cutting, forced marriage, and abuse. A wonderful man, he called me back immediately after receiving my thorough and slightly anxious message. He explained that because she was 18 years old when she was forced into the marriage, and was now 20 years old, that there was nothing he could do. She was out of his jurisdiction and technically under the law, she was an adult and made the decision to go and consummate the marriage. All he could do was offer to hold a mediation with the family if that’s what it came to. He said that she should start taking the steps to divorce him. She’s an adult and has the right.

I called for her to come to our house and explained that I had already called my friend who works at the court and explained her situation. I told her I could call him right away so that he could give her advice.

To my surprise and dismay, she refused. She absolutely refused. She said she was too scared to get officials involved, that if he came to her house he would find out that her husband gave her family the money and that she technically “consummated” the marriage, and he would side with her parents. Of course that is not true. She has the right to leave him if she wants. Under the law she can divorce him, but her family would probably shame her forever. Some choice huh? She also said it was unsafe to call him because if he came to her home than her family would be shamed because everyone would know that she involved the authorities.

I tried for a good hour to convince her to at least talk to him about good strategies, my sisters translating the parts I couldn’t quite get out carefully enough in Pulaar. But she is too na├»ve, scared, and vulnerable. She still refused.

Her strategy? Run away. Great.
That’s not going to do any good except piss them off more, and put her in danger. Where is she going to run to? When they find her they’re just going to beat the crap out of her. Then what?

I told her that I would be happy to talk to them if she thought it would help. They are planning on sending her on Sunday (though I think they’re lying and it will actually be Saturday so she won’t runaway again). She is already ready to runaway early Sunday morning. Tremendous.
I tried my best to convince her that what needs to happen is a conversation. That their way of thinking needs to be changed first and foremost. They need to be told that they are not allowed to treat her that way.

I know that coming from me it will probably just seem meddlesome so I sought the advice of another teacher friend who lives in my neighborhood who also participated in my girls leadership conference and has experience intervening in these kinds of situations.

She was only slightly helpful, in that she was very realistic about the entire situation, but discouraging. She told me that the girl should never have accepted the marriage, that rather than piss off her parents she should have sought out the proper authorities and refused. Or, that she should have agreed, gone and married him and then pissed him off and been a bad wife until he divorced her and avoided the pressure of her parents altogether. Hmmm….

Not exactly the best advice.
For one thing it takes an incredibly strong woman to be able to handle that kind of situation. To first realize that you have resources and support networks to help you, to stand up against your parents, to resist the temptations of a wealthy arrangement when you’re dirt poor (however disgusting he is), or then to accept all these things to save face and refuse the advances of your husband and isolate yourself in your new family and be so disagreeable that he divorces you.

It makes me sick to my stomach just thinking about how convoluted, complicated, and not in her favor all these things are.

Family is everything here. Of course her parents are not allowed to kick her out and abandon her, but they can still make her life miserable, and cut her off entirely. She’s never been to school. What options does she have? I don’t even think she knows that she’s allowed to divorce him.

That’s where I come in.

I am treading as carefully as possible. It is a risky thing for me to be doing, as they are my neighbors and there are many people in my community who would be furious with me for interfering, but of course I am anyway. It’s the right thing to do. That and I’m crazy stubborn J but most of you already knew that.

Where it stands now is that I’m waiting with bated breath for this weekend to see what goes down. She wants to try to deal with it on her own this time. If they still try to send her afterwards then I have her permission to bring in the authorities. Meanwhile I’m trying to convince her that she has the right to divorce him.

My own sister didn’t even know that!? Women literally believe that they don’t have the right to even divorce their husbands! They are kept so far in the dark that it’s as if they perpetuate their status as second-class citizens. Of course, the law is on their side, but of course they still have to deal with all the familial repercussions of their actions, and the gossiping, isolation, and fighting that would ensue in their family and community networks.

All that is left is to have a sit-down with her parents. I am perfectly willing to be that person, but she has to ask me first. I am not going to march in there and risk breaking ties between our two families unless she asks me too. Also, it’s tricky because I would probably need a translator and that would mean involving someone else.

On the plus side my new contact at the court is kind of the awesomest contact yet. He was so helpful on the phone, had endless patience, and really thought over the whole story. Bottom line: he gives a shit. That is hard to find, especially among men with influential positions out here. He invited me to the courthouse Monday so that he can give me his information and documents that explain the best techniques for stopping forced and early marriage, the breakdowns of the laws, and how to hold mediations, who to contact etc. PC doesn’t exactly give us much training on this stuff and I figure that at least this way, maybe if I can leave the information for other volunteers in an organized manner, they will know the steps to take before it’s too late for another young girl. If the word gets out, my neighbor will be able to tell other girls that there are institutions in place to support them, that maybe next time this guy’s phone number will be passed from hand to hand in secret between girlfriends, and one of them will be courageous enough to fight and save herself from a forced marriage.

So that’s how I spent my day yesterday. I met with the school director to discuss my replacement volunteer, I went to the market, and spent the whole afternoon trying to change the world, one forced marriage at a time.
Granted I failed, so maybe it was all for naught…but I haven’t given up yet. I’ll keep you all posted.

Now, if only I could figure out some way to justify this time and energy as work for my Close of Service report…


Kevin pinto said...

Caitlin i don't know whether you still use this blog or not but i sent you a message previously seeking your help for a project i'm working on i could use your help please get in touch

Caitlin said...

Hi Kevin, yes please do get ahold of me. What kind of project are you working on? What is your contact information? My email is