By Jude Thaddeus Njikem
As a teacher in Cameroon, I have taught girls who married early and are returning to the school at a later age. I have always asked myself, as well as some of the girls who are returning to school, if marriage is a matter of choice? I remember meeting Hamidou (name changed) two years ago. She was just 8 years-old and ran away from her parents to Yaoundé, the second largest city in Cameroon, because she was forced into marriage against her will. Upon arriving in Yaoundé, she was enrolled in primary school, where I met her and where she continued to worry daily that her parents would find her. This is just one story. There are many more girls like Hamidou in Cameroon who have become child brides – a practice where girls are married before the age of 18 – and are deprived of their right to education, full development and an opportunity to end poverty.
Currently, we are seeing the largest youth generation in human history. There are now more than one billion young people between the ages of 10-19 around the world, with over 84 percent of them living in developing countries. According to UNFPA, if present trends continue, by 2030, 500,000 girls born between 2005 and 2010 will be married or in a union before they turn 18. This is no surprise; considering that worldwide, an estimated 13 percent of girls were married by age 15 and 38 percent of girls were married by age 18.
According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016, Cameroon ranks 20th in the countries with highest prevalence of child brides. More than one out every three girls in Cameroon is married before they turn 18.
Child marriage is most common in the northern part of the country where three-fourths of women aged 20-29 were married before they turned 16. Prevalence is highest in North of Cameroon, where 79 percent of girls marry early. Most of the girls in the northern part of the country are given to much older suitors when they are 11 or 12 years-old according to Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS). Cameroonian girls are susceptible to early marriage because cultural and social norms dictate they marry earlier than boys, as it is believed that the future and dignity of girls in the country is secured only in her marital home. Girls are therefore denied the opportunity to go to school because they are expected to do chores such as cooking, fetching water and cleaning the home in preparation for their married life.
In the northern part of Cameroon, girls are often told early that marriage is their primary destiny. Girls are therefore advised and forced to marry at a young age and consequently forced to finish their schooling early. The fact that early marriage can be a major financial boon compounds the impetus to marry them off early. According to culture, the groom provides what is known as “bride wealth” to the girl’s family in the form of livestock, cash or goods. The younger the girl, the higher the bride price, which incentivizes poor families to marry off their daughters before they even hit puberty. Additionally, older men often seek younger women as a means of boosting their virility and avoiding infections, as it is believed that a young and a virgin bride is “pure”—a characteristic much valued in Cameroonian culture.
Faced with these statistics, advocates like me have continued to ask how policies can prevent such high rates of child marriage. This question is even more urgent considering that we know that child marriage affects the lives of girls with regards to barriers to education, continuous intergenerational poverty, higher health risk (increased risk of obstetric fistula, STIs related risk and pregnancy related complication), undermines the dignity and safety of girls and infringes on the rights of girls. Further, child marriage robs girls of their childhood and the option to pursue an education and exercise the right to choice as they are thrust into adult roles, which often includes forced sex and pressure to bear children, before they are ready
Around the world, 158 countries have set the legal age of marriage to 18, but in many countries, these laws are ignored. In Cameroon, a new penal code promulgated into law on the 12th of July by the President of the Republic, aims to end this harmful, traditional practice.
The new Penal Code, under section 356, states;
This new Penal Code an important step in the fight against child marriage as it is the first time the government is criminalizing any marriage contracted for girls below the age of 18. This is an important first step as one of the preconditions to ending child marriage is to have strong laws that protect girls.
As demonstrated above, in Cameroon, the practice of child marriage is most prevalent in rural communities where most families are poor. Natural disasters and financial crises can aggravate poverty, and can force families to marry off their daughters in order to survive.
To combat child marriage, it is therefore important not only to raise the minimum age of marriage laws for girls, but also to engage local leaders and the community where this practice is dominant. Changing communities’ attitude and perception of child marriage and simultaneously encouraging them to effect a change in other communities is key to ensuring the law is implemented properly. Girls and boys also must be empowered to play a role in ending marriage in their communities. Further, we must work to engage families and talk to them about different ways their children can improve their livelihoods, rather than presenting marriage as the only option. This is why another section of the new Penal Code, section 355-2, is so critical; it states that any parent with sufficient means who refuses to send his children to school, shall be punished with a fine from CFAF 50,000 to 500,000 and where the offence is repeated, an imprisonment of between up to two years.
The new Penal Code is on track to change the course of the lives of the 500,000 girls who are risk of becoming a child bride by 2030, but advocates like me will be watching closely to see how this new code will help end child marriage in Cameroon once and for all.