Every third girl in Cameroon is married before she turns 18. They lose their childhood, their chance of an education and their future. And the government does little to protect them.
Yaounde (dpa) – Emmanuelle Ekassi’s childhood ended at the age of 14, when she was forced to marry a man 30 years her senior who she had never met.
Her aunt had arranged the wedding after Ekassi was raped by an unknown man and had fallen pregnant.
“I didn’t love this man and would never have married him,” Ekassi, who is now 37 years old and lives in Cameroon’s capital, Yaounde, says. “But with a child I couldn’t take care of … I had no other choice.”
One out of three girls – particularly from poor rural areas – are forced into marriage in the West African nation, according to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).
Of these, almost 80 per cent are denied access to education and thrust into adult roles, an UNFPA study found. The few who are allowed to go to school mainly receive primary education.
Child brides are often forced to have sex and are exposed to the risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Many marry into polygamous relationships.
Most fall pregnant when they are still children themselves, and their bodies not yet ready to withstand the strains of giving birth, warns the UN children’s fund, UNICEF. Many of these young mothers die during childbirth, and their babies also have less chance of survival.
“It’s a double tragedy. Their future will be short-changed,” says UNICEF senior child protection specialist Francesca Moneti.
“Girls may be subjected to violence or abuse, including unwanted sexual relations, and not be able to defend themselves. They may suffer from isolation or depression,” Moneti adds.
Marrying daughters off is an income generation strategy in Cameroon, where almost a third of the country’s 22 million people live in poverty, according to the UN.
But the issue is by no means unique to Cameron.
Taking West and Central Africa as a whole, an average of two out of five girls marry before the age of 18, according to UNFPA. But the proportion rises to 75 per cent in Niger, 72 per cent in Chad and 63 per cent in Guinea.
The relationship between paucity and early marriage is apparent: More than 71 per cent of child brides come from poor households, according to UNFPA.
Parents marry off their daughters in exchange for dowry payments in the form of money, livestock or goods. Some hope to strengthen important family ties, others need to pay debts, while yet others want to marry into a rich family.
“Girls are given out just like goats. The girls are used as if they were property,” says Georgette Arrey Taku, programme officer of the National Association of Aunties (RENATA), a charity fighting sexual abuse and violence against adolescents.
The younger the girl, the higher the price, says Taku. “Some men even give away their daughters in marriage before they are born.”
In one particularly harrowing case, the charity rescued a 9-year-old girl who was married to a 60-year-old man in exchange for a 35-dollar loan.
In Ekassi’s case, the man she was forced to marry paid her aunt a good price. Three years into the marriage, at the age of 17, Ekassi had borne him two children. When her husband died shortly thereafter, Ekassi was left penniless with a baby and two toddlers.
After months of near starvation, Ekassi opened a street food stand with the support of RENATA, which gains her enough income to feed herself and her children.
Like most governments in the region, Cameroon does little to protect these girls. The legal minimum age of marriage is in fact only 15 years for girls, but 18 years for boys. Although Cameroon’s penal code stipulates that marriage needs the consent of both parties, the law is seldom enforced.
Minister of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, Marie Therese Abena Ondoa, has publicly criticized child marriages, saying it is “immoral to sell out girls as if they were property.”
Ondoa has also helped launch advocacy campaigns and has collaborated with community and religious leaders in rural areas to educate the population.
But the minister has not been able to convince government to raise the legal marriage age.