By Berlyne Ngwalem Ngwentah, Country Coordinator for Safecity.
Not Just a Rural Issue
To many people in urban areas in Cameroon, child marriage may seem to be a practice that is nonexistent or practiced only in certain communities or in rural areas. Yes, it is true that child marriage is more widespread in rural areas, and especially in the far north, but let’s not forget that there are also many child brides found in towns.
Some girls are married off from their villages to intelligent and/or educated men in town. The problem is, one cannot always go around asking for the birth certificate of every young girl to know how old they were when they got married; if we were to dig into this issue deeper, we would realise that it is a common practice.
I can assure you that I am used to coming across child brides and notice this because I am vigilant and care about other under-privileged women’s plights. Child brides are a lot more common in urban areas than you think, and I wish to draw your attention to this reality.
Where I live in Buea, the capital city of the Southwest Region of Cameroon, I have come across a 16 year-old child bride who was being promised education by a man in his mid 20’s if she marries him – only by marrying this man, he immediately wanted to start having children and using force to have sex with her, even during her fertile period. Sometimes the fights get out of control, she explains in a safecityreport - reports we collect to help us understand the problem of abuse we face in our community and mobilize people in the fight against gender based violence and to create safe spaces for women.
“I am a 16 year-old married to a young boy of 25 years. We agreed that I will be going to school while in his house but he wants us to have sex even in my unsafe period. Surprisingly he wants us to start having children out of my wish. It has brought serious problems that he tears my pants “
The girl is against it but there is nothing she can do because she depends on this man.
The list can go on and on. But the irony is, I meet people everyday who accuse women’s rights activists of faking such situations and say we exaggerate these issues, simply because they are not vigilant enough to notice that child brides also are found in urban areas. Such accusations mostly come from men, in my experience, and/or people including privileged woman who don’t seem to care about other people’s plights and care not about positive change and national growth.
Mutengene is one of those rough Cameroonian towns in which acts of women’s rights violation go hidden and many crimes go unpunished. It is in Mutengene where two young teenagers were given into marriage. These teenagers were pushed from their respective villages into the arms of older men in Mutengene town.
Anita - forced into polygamous marriage, for fear of being cursed
Anita is a brave 19 year-old teenager who has been in a forced relationship for over three years in a polygamous marriage – to an older chief in his 50s from “Nah-taden , Bamumbu” in the south west region of Cameroon. Her fake documents might show she is 21 years old and got married at the age of 19 but as it happened, her learned uncle, father, and chief forged her age to hide their crime of selling a young energetic girl. She is a girl who wanted to study, enjoy living the life of a young child, and then later on marry the man of her dreams.
Narrating her story to me, I could tell the pain she goes through being forced to do all sorts of things she doesn’t wish too in that marriage which includes satisfying her older husband sexually.
Anita had no choice other than to yield to her mother’s pleas to marry this old man. For her mother, the decision is simply out of fear that her daughter might become an "imbecile" like one of Anita’s relatives in the village who was being forced to marry a man against her will. When she protested grandfather’s demands, the poor girl all of a sudden lost her senses. This sent a message to all the other young girls in the compound that whoever protests the grandfather will be made useless with magical powers.
Her grandfather is feared by many and known to practice witchcraft. Married to five wives, he still thinks women are property, so he decides when and to whom to sell any of his grandchildren. It took three men and other accomplices to ensure that Anita lives a life of distressful loneliness. Amongst these men are Anita’s father – married to two wives, and the uncle, who masterminded the forging of her birth certificate from 15 to 18 years old.
She dreams of some day becoming an accountant. She wishes to someday live the marriage but is fearful she might not be able to refund the “bride price” paid to her father, uncle, and grandfather. There is no doubt from talking to her that she struggles with education because of constant fights and mounting tension being seen as a threat by the first wife.
Mispah - held back in senseless tradition, culture and poverty
Mispah, unlike Anita, already has a little boy with her older husband and can neither read nor write. Contrary to what she says to her close friends about her struggles in her marriage and her husband’s refusal to pay for her training to become a hairstylist, she was reluctant to talk to me about her woes in her marriage and her real reasons for getting married when she was almost 16. Before I could complete my sentence asking her about her age, she looked at me straight in the face, with a facial expression to try to assure me that she is presently 18 and old enough to be married.
She wanted to survive and help her young sister since they have no parents to take care of them both. There was one option to escape poverty and that meant marrying a man who works at Demonte. Tiko, with a meager income of about 35000-40000 XAF a month, has a lot more responsibilities which means that he could cater to only 1/3 of his family’s needs.
From what I saw, there is no doubt that Mispah and her son suffer deeply. They live in a deplorable state-- in a 3 by 4 meter room. Recently, when I spoke to her, she desperately said her little boy had malaria and Mispah herself looked terribly sick and down in spirit. When I asked her how she was doing, she sadly and softly replied that they have no choice but to manage. I could only imagine how she felt as she is unable to pay her boy’s medical bills to ensure that her little boy is healthy because she depends on her poor husband for everything.
One thing that she fearlessly voiced is how helpful it would be if there was financial aid to enable her be trained in a field that could allow her to have some income. The income would help her to take care of herself, her son. and also help her to manage her poverty-stricken home.
The International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) reports that one of the highest cases of early marriages happen in central and west Africa, with a high adolescent birth rate of about 200 births per 1,000 adolescent girls. Anita, Mispah’s, and many other young women’s stories of emotional and psychological torture that I couldn’t mention in this article are all complex and pathetic.
These are girls who could actively participate and contribute their full potential in the advancement of our country, yet are being held behind because of senseless tradition, culture and poverty; they feel trapped in a marriage that brings no joy.
These women share a desire to live better, independent and happier lives in the future.
Child Marriage and the Law
Child marriage is a violation of human rights but is all too common. Marriage before the age of 18 is a fundamental violation of human rights. Yet among women aged 20 to 24 worldwide, about one in three were a child bride says UNICEF. The problem is, the legal age for marriage in Cameroon for girls is 15 and 18 for boys – a law that is vigorously being fought against by human rights activists, the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment, and the family – with reasons being that a child at 15 knows nothing and should be in school, not in a man’s bed making babies that might cost her life during delivery.
They are fighting hard to prevent situations like that of a 16 year-old child bride married to a guy in his late 20’s - I presume from how he looks. When I came across mother and mother and baby girl, the child was about 2 years old and the mother was pregnant for another; she has no education, neither does she work and can take care of herself and her little girl. She and her husband looked broke, dressed in tattered clothing. She couldn’t stop bleeding and needed urgent medical attention. She was so naïve about everything but was expecting a second baby.
Article 45 of the Cameroon Constitution states that if Cameroon signs International conventions, they are incorporated in the legislature and will take precedence over national laws. Cameroon is a signatory to the CEDAW (UN-Convention of the Elimination of all Forms of Violence Against Women) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These are all international conventions put in place to ensure that human equality, rights, and dignity are achieved and women’s human rights are respected.
Cameroonian people still use the Cameroonian law that states that minimum marriage for girls is 15 - to justify child marriage before the age of 18 when the girl will be physically, psychologically, and emotionally mature to make an informed decision and handle the commitment that comes with two people binding their lives together. Worse of it all is that strict legal punishment is not implemented to punish those who perpetuate this act.
Another disturbing concern is, how long will it take for the deliberations that comes with changing a constitution or conventions to be effected in order to change the status quo and make child marriage a crime effectively punishable all round in Cameroon?.
The African Union launched a 2- year Campaign in May 2014 to combat child marriage around Africa . Cameroon is one of the 10 countries in which this campaign is to run for two years. This adorable developmental campaign is failing immensely in Cameroon as the government is doing very little or nothing to stop this practice. Local NGOs seem to be the ones doing all the work and putting pressure on the government to fight this ill. It has been almost one year since the launching of this campaign in high zone areas which Cameroon is one – with a high rate of 39% and in 14th place in Sub-Saharan Africa, according to a UNICEF 2014 report.
After the up-rising in Burkina Faso in October 2014, to oust president Blaise Campaoré who had stayed in power for 27 year – attempting to prolong his stay, Cameroon’s government passed an anti-terrorism law in December 2014. The anti terrorism law, which prohibited any strike actions, took less than no time to be passed. The draft Children and Family Code to fight child marriage, put a minimum age to 18 in the Cameroon constitution and breach the gender gap has been deliberated on since 2004.
Nothing seems to be done about the draft law on Child Protection to protect the rights of the child in accordance with the Maputo Protocol.
Every method to aid the continuation of this practice should be blocked for effective change with no single confusion or justification placed by ignorant people / parents who see their girl children as property. Clear laws should be put in place to make Cameroonians aware of the punishable implications of the act of child, early and forced marriages. This will force them to refrain from selling off their girls into forced and early marriages.
The majority of the Cameroonian population wouldn't always know of all the intellectual legislative knowledge of all the international conventions signed by Cameroon to end child marriage and that it overrides our national law of the marriage of girls at the tender age of 15. It will do everyone the utmost good to change the marriage of girls in the Cameroon constitution from 15 to 18, which is a national document more easily accessible to the Cameroon population, than the international documents, and make it conform to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, CEDAW and the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) of which Cameroon is a signatory.
It will be a crucial step to end child marriage and the violation of the rights of all children.