DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — Sitting on the floor and dressed in black, the 15-year-old held her baby as panicked tears welled in her eyes. Her husband, two decades her senior, could kill her if he found out she was telling her story, she said.
She was married at age 13 in the West African nation of Guinea because her parents feared she could harm her marriage prospects by having premarital sex. At the time, she said, she had not even developed breasts.
"I was given to a man that I didn't choose before my body was even ready to have sex," she said, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals. "I couldn't even move for a week afterward because I was swollen and bleeding."
Child marriage remains deeply entrenched in West and Central Africa, home to six of the 10 countries with the highest rates in the world. Rights groups and political and religious leaders from across the region gathered in Senegal this past week to seek ways to curb the practice.
Outspoken survivors of child marriage urged them on.
More than half of girls in Guinea are married before age 18. While the country recently banned marriage for those under that age, observers say the practice remains widespread. Some girls enter arranged marriages during times of insecurity or when families are under economic strain.
"This is a complex issue driven by poverty, cultural norms and families trying to do the best for their children," said Save The Children International CEO Helle Thorning-Schmidt. "But until we break the cycle where the only way a girl can give her family honor is to marry and have children, then we will not change this."
Child marriage affects nearly 15 million girls around the globe. The rate is as high as 76 percent in Niger; in Chad and Central African Republic it is 68 percent. Mali and Burkina Faso have rates above 50 percent, according to data from Save the Children and Girls Not Brides.
Experts say education for girls is key to providing them with opportunities beyond marriage, and to improving regional prosperity.
Musu Bakoto Sawo, now a 27-year-old lawyer and human rights advocate from Gambia, was married at age 14. She was 21 when she became a widow and inherited nothing.
She said education is the only reason she has thrived, calling it "the only way I could go against the system."
Even for those who avoid an early marriage, social consequences can be immense.
Fatoumata, 14, called it "the nightmare of my life" when her family said she was to marry her 39-year-old cousin. She fled that night in her pajamas to stay with a friend's family.
"My father said if I refused this marriage I was no longer his child," she said. "He threatened my mother too ... she has suffered because of me." She gave only her first name for fear of reprisals.
Some young women may embrace early marriages, seeing them as protection from insecurity in conflict-ridden areas, said Zuwaira Bello of the advocacy group Girl Child Concerns. The group operates in northern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram extremist insurgency is known for kidnapping young women and forcing them into marriages.
Involving former child brides in community activism will help discourage child marriages that seek protection from unrest, Bello said.
Some young women who escaped forced marriages now spread the word against the practice.
Leila, who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family, said her uncle in Niger forced her to marry a man at age 14 because he owed a debt he couldn't repay. A year later, she was pregnant.
She said her husband beat her for refusing sex. After a second pregnancy, she was able to escape, get a divorce and return to her studies.
Through tears, she urged other young brides to remain hopeful. "I would say to them to be patient and remain courageous," she said.
Associated Press writer Boubacar Diallo in Conakry, Guinea contributed.