The realities of child marriage

© Bertheline Nina Tchangoue

Bertheline Nina Tchangoue from Cameroon and Member of the Youth Advocacy Group
 

By Bertheline Nina Tchangoue (Cameroon)
Member, Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group 

Maimouna’s story

6 June 2013 - I will never forget this sad story that happened when I was 11 years old. My first year in secondary school, I had a classmate and best friend called Maimouna. Maimouna was 12 years old but had to stop her education because of forced marriage. I was so traumatized and I could not eat or concentrate on my studies. My parents had to take me to the hospital for consultation, but doctors said I needed to rest and stop thinking.

It was only because of a letter I received from Maimouna two weeks after the sad news of her marriage, that I regained power and courage. In the letter, she explained every single detail about her marriage to me. She wrote that her father had to get her married to repay a debt of 150000FRS CFA, which is approximately 300 USD, and that if the money was reimbursed completely, her marriage would be terminated. After reading my friend’s letter, I thought of how I could help Maimouna come out of such a terrible life. I felt in the bottom of my heart that I could help her, but I didn’t know how.

I decided to share the whole story to my parents and made them understand that my discomfort was due to Maimouna being my best friend. They told me they had friends who worked on women's rights in rural areas and they would contact them to try and help Maimouna, but that I also needed to take care of myself by eating properly and focusing on my studies.

My father met his friends, who were human rights activists, and explained Maimouna's situation to them. His friends contacted Maimouna's parents to educate them about children and women's rights and the importance of education, as well as the dangers of early marriage. In addition, Maimouna's father received a loan to be able to start an income-generating activity that would help sustain his family and allow him to gradually repay the money that he borrowed, therefore resolving his debt.

That was how Maimouna got a second chance in life to build her future. She was able to end her marriage and continue with her education. Many girls across the world are in the same situation Maimouna was in, but they unfortunately cannot do anything about it.

Child marriage is against human rights

Child marriage is a common cultural practice in many countries – especially many low-income countries such as Cameroon. Child marriage most frequently occurs between a girl child, below the legal age of marriage, and a man often 3 to 5 times her age. In its report on Ending Child Marriage that was released in May 2013, the Council on Foreign Relations mentioned that ‘nearly five million girls are married under the age of fifteen every year, and some are as young as eight or nine years old’. When girls are forced into marriage at such a young age, they often lack the foundational skills and knowledge of their rights, education on sexual and reproductive health, and the agency to lead healthy, productive lives. Child marriage is against Human Rights principles as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

It happens in my country

In the Northern regions of Cameroon and rural communities, child marriages occur most frequently. Even before being married off, girls are undervalued in many families. They are forced to do house chores such as washing dishes, laundry, carrying water long distances and cleaning the house, whereas sons are often free to play, listen to adults’ conversations and study. Even when girls are enrolled in primary school they are often still forced to do household tasks such as carrying water, preparing food and washing dishes as soon as they return from school.

In these communities marrying off a daughter is seen as a lucrative transaction for families faced with the burdens of poverty.  Early on, girls are taught how to manage a home and to focus less on their studies. Most of the time, girls are not aware that they are going to be married off and have to leave their families. Child brides often don’t possess the life skills needed for the new lives they are forced into.

There are many reasons why parents force their girl children into early marriages: cultural practices, solving debt, poverty, illiteracy, war and hunger. Child marriage debilitates a girl’s social and emotional health.  It can expose her to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Child marriage also often leads to early pregnancy, which places the girl and her baby’s life at risk.

Putting a stop to this detrimental practice

Child marriage does not recognize Children and Women’s Rights. It does not promote equal rights and opportunities. We cannot talk about social justice in a milieu where discrimination on age and gender exist because social justice is all about equal rights and opportunities with no discrimination to religion, race, age, gender, color, origin and social class.

There are specific policy and program changes that can help to end child marriage such as: 
•    Develop sensitization campaigns on the dangers of child marriage in communities around the world;
•    Mobilize scholarship opportunities for girls and traditional leaders of these communities to put more girls in school and to change the mindset on girls' education;
•    Create youth friendly centers whereby young people can meet and discuss the current challenges they are facing;
•    Have household visits where discussions on taboo issues such as child marriage, sex education and child labor can be had; and
•    Create strategic channels to facilitate open dialogue on child marriage including in churches and mosques.

In order to secure a sustainable future for all of our children, child marriage must be eliminated. Girls must have equal opportunities to education and the ability to chart their own futures - just like their male counterparts.

Additional resources:

•    Knowledge for Children
•    Girls Not Brides
•    UNFPA End Child Marriage
•    UNGEI child marriage blog and EAP factsheets