Dakar, Senegal — An estimated one in three girls in Senegal are married before the age of 18, putting them at a higher risk for abuse, complications from pregnancy, and making them more likely to drop out of school. To engage families in a discussion about the dangers of forced early marriage, an internationally acclaimed film is now being screened in villages throughout the country.
A new film, Tall as the Baobab Tree, is being shown in communities across Senegal, and around the world, to shed light on the issue of child marriage.
The director of the film, Jeremy Teicher, spoke to VOA via Skype.
"Tall as the Baobab Tree is a fiction film about the sort of generational gap, the experience of being the young generation in a village that is entering the modern world for the first time," he said. "The main experience that this film focuses on is educating versus early marriage, which seems, in my experience, to be the single biggest challenge that this younger generation faces, coming from these traditionally conservative, rural villages."
The story, which is set in and filmed in a Senegalese village, follows two sisters who are the first from their family to ever go to school. When the older sister finds out her father plans to sell her 11-year-old sister into an arranged marriage, she comes up with a plan to save her.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 14 million girls who get married before their 18th birthdays.
While marrying at such a young age limits the potential of girls, and could endanger their health and well-beings, it is not necessarily viewed as a harmful practice in many places.
Teicher said it is for that reason he went to great lengths to approach the issue from a non-judgmental standpoint.
"We actually see that in this case, the early marriage is just a result of two different generational mindsets, where the parents think that this marriage is really what's best for their daughter, whereas the younger kids know that school is really the best option for her future, but the older generation just doesn't fully understand or can't fully accept that new mindset. So it's this sort of tragic situation, where there is no villain, it's more just a lack of understanding," he said.
Teicher said this approach has prompted communities to start dialogues about the issue.
Lakshmi Sundaram is global co-ordinator of Girls Not Brides, a partnership of civil society groups that work to end child marriage. She said that such dialogues, along with increased access to education, are crucial for reducing the number of child brides.
Dialogues, she explained, are the first step in changing the attitudes of village elders and religious leaders, who often play an important role in determining what is and isn't appropriate for the children of the community.
"We've been really excited by the film Tall as the Baobab Tree because we are convinced that these sorts of films and media projects can play an incredibly important role in starting to bring light to this issue," said Sundaram. "It's been shown in over 60 schools in Senegal, and really started to prompt a discussion and dialogue about this issue in a way that's not at all sensationalist, that's very respectful of the incredibly difficult choices that girls and families have to face when thinking about marrying off their children."
Teicher said the film also has been validating for many kids to see they are not the only ones feeling torn by tradition and modernity, and it has empowered young people to see that even if change takes time, it is possible for them to make the changes they want to see in their communities.