Early Marriage: a vice that infringes on the rights of Girls in Cameroon

Cameroon joined the rest of the International Community on the 11th of October 2014 to celebrate the International Day of the Girl Child. On this day, various International Organizations like UNICEF and National bodies like Plan Cameroon, and the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family were vocal in denouncing discriminatory practices which enhance and promote violence against the girl child. One of these practices was early marriage which has many negative effects on the girl.

Early marriages in Cameroon are quite common. According to UNICEF’s Cameroon Operations Chief, Daouda Guindo, 31% of girls in Cameroon get married before the age of 15. The Cameroon law, equally states that a girl must be 15 to get married.  Even though this age is backed by law, the girl at this stage is still a child. Her physiology is not yet mature for motherhood.  In rural areas as a result of poverty, parents give their young daughters in marriage to relieve themselves of the burden of bringing them up. Her bride price will either increase family income, or make available funds for the brothers’ education.  Apart from poverty, it is a way of life for some communities in the Adamawa, Northwest and Extreme northern region of Cameroon. These girls are usually married off to men who are much older than them, and often into polygamous marriages.

Despite awareness campaigns raised by women rights activist and medics on the negative consequences girls suffer as a result of early marriages, the practice has continued. This is probably because from generation to generation, society has seen women/girls only as objects of male sexual gratification, and for this reason, a man at 60 gets married to a girl of 12 years. This elderly man will not only reap her innocence, but impose an adult life of responsibility on a child who is yet to discover who she is. Harriet Martineau (1802-876) aptly describes this as ‘the early marriages of silly children where every woman is married before she well knows how serious a matter human life is’. Several decades have passed since Harriet pronounced these words. Yet the practice of child marriages have continued, and still being continued.

In the northwest region of Cameroon, it is not uncommon to see young girls between the ages of   15 and 16 married even to notables and Fons (Chiefs). I use the example of notables and Fons, because these are respectable people in the community and are expected to set the pace for good morals. This goes on unquestioned because society has curved a niche for women which is to get marry, bear children and serve husbands. As an ‘advocate for women’s rights’, I wonder why despite the fact that Cameroon has signed and ratified many International Conventions such as; the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and its Optional Protocol, the 1993 Declaration on Violence Against Women, Maputo Protocol and the Convention on the Rights of the Child;  to promote and protect  women and children including the girl child, the  country has not taken adequate measures to translate these commitments in to concrete action by eliminating discrimination by sex and to enhance  gender equality. Rather the marriages of young teen age girls to adults have continued unabated with about 31% of them getting married before the age of 15.

Every person concerned about the welfare of women and girls would not remain indifferent to early marriage. This is because the consequences are many ranging from health, socioeconomic and political life of the girls. When little girls get married, they are denied the opportunities to prepare for their future. Education has been identified as one of the most important tools that can empower women and transform their lives. Early marriage deprives its victim from going to school. Instead of learning a life skill, studying in school and playing with her peers like other children of her age, she is already saddled with adult responsibilities of bearing and taking care of children even though she is still, only a child.

According to a publication by the United Nations Population Fund title ‘How Universal is Access to Reproductive Health? A review of the evidence’, publised in 2010,  it is stated that,  it is likely that  girls who marry young will fall into deeper poverty, and are more likely to die than adult women, by experiencing complications, or through suffering lasting health problems related to childbirth. One of the most devastating outcomes of early pregnancies suffered by these teenage girls is obstetric fistula, a result of obstructed labour when girls’ bodies are not fully mature which leaves a hole through which feces or urine can leak. In an article published in 2009 by Tebu P.M on ‘Obstetric Services Situation of Northern Cameroon’, (Retrieved Obstetric Services Situation of Northern Cameroon www.gfmer.ch/presentation of 16 August 2009), he says that obstetric fistula is a chronic condition in the Far North Region of Cameroon.  However, said the condition which is both preventable and treatable often leaves women to live in lifelong pain, infection, shame and sometimes ostracization and death.

Speaking to Mme Adija who is a victim of child marriage, she had this to share: “I got married at the age of 14. I had just completed my 7th grade and as my friends were preparing to go to secondary school, my parents prepared me for marriage. I did not understand what marriage was nor the duties and responsibilities that went with it. I got married to a man who was twice my age. Before I turned 20 I had four children. Adopting an adult life style at a tender age killed all my dreams. I had no opportunity to play like my friends, learn a life skill or further my education like my friends. The marriage killed my dreams. However I am determined to make sure that I educate my daughters and that they should not suffer same like me.”

There are many women out there like Mme Adijia who have been victims and know the pain of early marriage. Early marriages, also increases the vulnerability of adolescent girls to STDs, including HIV/AIDS. According to a regional based NGO organization of African Youth Cameroon, the prevalence of HIV infection in married girls is 3.9, which is high in comparison to unmarried girls 2.0%. This has been attributed to the fact that the married girls often get married to much older men who as a result of their age are at increased risk of being HIV positive. In addition, the power relations in the marriage are often unbalanced which increases the married girls’ exposure to HIV infection.

Despite the bleak situation, all is not lost. Several efforts have been made at the International as well as National levels to empower girls through education. The government works alongside UNICEF, Plan International and others, to boost girl-child school attendance: building parent awareness, providing private toilet facilities, offering free textbooks and scholarships to girls, lobbying traditional authorities to stamp out child marriages in their chiefdoms are examples.

Girls’ Education, advocates have made it clear that educating more girls and women would increase the quantity and quality of human resources needed to drive forward the country’s development especially because of the triple role they play in the community.  Women comprise the majority of Cameroon’s over 20 million inhabitants, but remain far under-represented in the country’s decision-making institutions. Thus to right this wrong, and to ensure that women in the near future are represented 50X50 in public service  in Cameroon, the government  has to invest on girl child education. It must start now through education.

 Jane F. Mufua | Cameroon