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The Strength to Say No

The Strength To Say No

“Being able to say No, is a significant change. If I could just say No when I was younger, I would have been in a better place”, said Salma, a 26-year-old anti-child marriage activist from Morocco.

“When I was younger, I dreamed of becoming a lawyer, or a flight attendant to travel the world. But all that ended when I was pulled out of school to be married off at the age of 16”, she said.

The pressure from her family was stronger than her ability to refuse: “They told me that marrying a 40-year-old rich man would guarantee a better life out of poverty. I feel my father had sold me to a man that abused me,” Salma told us. During the engagement, she could see the future that was awaiting her: “He used to yell at me and hit me if someone looked at me. My parents still forced me to marry him, and I only had my grandparents to support me”, she said.

Her grandmother, from her mother’s side, tried to convince her father not to marry her off. However, he succumbed to the pressure from his family, who needed the money the groom would pay. Eventually, her grandmother and aunt had to plan her escape, “I went to the beauty salon in preparation for the ceremony with other girls from the family. My grandmother helped me escape when everyone was busy with their preparations. I was so scared, but she assured me this would be for my best”, she added. Salma managed to escape to her aunt’s house in another city and stayed there for a couple of months.

Salma explained that poor families in Morocco marry off their children for the money. She said that many men who marry young girls are usually wealthy, and turn out to be abusive. “Social norms and traditions are very strong. When girls turn 14, they should get married, otherwise they are considered a financial and social burden”, she said.  

Salma now works as a sales associate for a local company in Rabat. She decided to get her Baccalaureate (high school) diploma years after her escape. “I got my Baccalaureate degree the same year that my younger sister got it. I believe that I have achieved a lot, even though I am a bit behind others of my age,” she said, explaining that her jealousy of others with high school degrees fueled her ambition to complete her education. 

Salma is also a volunteer with one of Equality Now’s partners, and is a speaker at webinars and awareness sessions advocating against child marriage, where she inspires other young girls. “My role as an activist is to raise awareness about the consequences of child marriage. I believe that women and girls should know their rights and be empowered to fight for them. I also work with parents who should protect their girls from this harm and help them create a better future”, she said. Salma believes that her experience has also influenced her family. “After what I did, my father wouldn’t marry off my younger sisters. Even though they are 12 and 16 years old, they learned to stand their ground and pursue their dreams. I am learning a lot from them”.

As a volunteer with a women’s rights organization, Salma helped Iman, another victim-turned-survivor of child marriage, escape her marriage. They are now friends and fellow activists championing the fight against child marriage in Morocco. Together, they attended the Digital Advocacy Training organized by Equality Now in Beirut last September. They learned how to identify their target audience and how to deliver their messages. Salma said that this training and the mentoring from Equality Now’s team made her more confident to share her story at the Cross-Regional Conference on Family Law, held in Istanbul in October 2022. “I want women and girls to be brave, to fight for their rights, and never settle for anything that harms them”, she hoped.

Name was changed and face was hidden as requested by the interviewee.