As I step into the khaima, I immediately see 2 year old Raïssa playing with her mother’s bag and staring at me with a malicious look. Minetou holds 1 month old baby Aminata in her arms and rocks her slowly.
After the long Mauritanian greetings, I am offered a glass of Mauritanian tea. Minetou starts speaking shyly. “I was born in 1998,” she says, looking at me with her big black eyes. She lays the baby on a blanket on the floor, and readjusts her flowery melhafa. “I got married when I was 13.”
I try to remember the 13 year old version of me and all I can picture is me laughing with my friends in class. Suddenly, as I look at Minetou, a deep sadness invades every single part of my body: child, bride and mother at the same time.
Minetou doesn’t smile much. From time to time, she glances at Raïssa, and giggles at the sight the little girl who is now focused on peeling an orange. “I used to go to school, but I dropped out. You see, I could no longer attend my classes. My father died this same year, so that’s when all the problems started.”
After her father’s death, Minetou started working in a small restaurant in her neighborhood – which is one of Nouakchott’s poorest. “I was only 12, but I no longer felt like a child. I needed to find money to provide food for my family.” One year later, she was married. “I wasn’t forced into marriage. I forced myself into marriage because of my family’s situation”.
31 per cent of the Mauritanian population live below the poverty line. Child marriage is often perceived as a coping mechanism. When a girl is married, the family receives a dowry. Minetou stops and pulls Raïssa, who trying to snatch my glass of tea, toward her.
“I was 13, he was 20”, she adds. “Before, I was just an average student and wanted to work as a customs officer. My dad provided us with everything.” She smiles. “I miss how he would constantly joke around.” When I ask her if she sometimes thinks of going back to school, she nods shyly.
“Sometimes life is good, sometimes life is bad. But Raïssa and Aminata are my motivation in life. If they could just have access to the basic things in life – food, health and education – I would be so happy.”
She looks at sleeping Aminata and grabs Raïssa’s little hand. “My daughters will finish school. Then, they will get a good job. Only after that, I will let them get married. But not before.”
Khaima: Mauritanian tent
Melhafa: Colorful traditional cloth for women, made out of veil and wrapped around the head and the entire body.
Najade Lindsay is a Communications Specialist in the UNICEF Mauritania office.