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Cameroon: Women and girls say no to child marriage (IPS)

Bienvienue Taguieke was expected to obey her parents and marry a man 40 years older than her. She was 12 years old.

Now 15, Ms. Taguieke recalls: “I was a pupil at a government school in Guidimdaz … when a man offered 5,000 Central African francs [$8.60 U.S.] to my mother for my hand in marriage. I refused and alerted … the headmistress of my school.”

The headmistress begged the mother not to give her daughter away. Ms. Taguieke says, “I think my mother wanted to sell me because of poverty. My father had died and there was nobody to pay my school fees and take care of us.”

A civil society association stepped in to help stop the marriage. Ms. Taguieke says: “The headmistress stopped the marriage arrangement my mother had initiated. Then … [ALDEPA] intervened and repaid the 5,000 CFA franc ‘dowry.’ ”

ALDEPA is currently paying school fees for Ms. Taguieke and 86 other teenagers rescued from early marriages. Henri Adjini is a senior official with ALDEPA. He says that forced marriages are part of local culture. Parents marry off their daughters in exchange for dowry payments in the form of money, livestock or goods.

He says: “The wish to strengthen family ties and friendships is very important … they believe marrying off their daughters could do just that. Other parents simply use their daughters to pay off their debts … the young woman’s choice hardly counts here.”

Child marriage in Cameroon’s Far North Region is all too common. According to the UN Population Fund, there is a clear relationship between early marriage and poverty in Cameroon. Seventy-one per cent of child brides come from poor households.

But child marriages are not unique to Cameroon. According to UNICEF, about 1 in 4 women globally is married before the age of 18, with the highest rates in South Asia. But rates across sub-Saharan Africa are almost as high—two out of five girls are married before 18 years of age, and 12 per cent before they reach 15.

Marie Therese Abena Ondoa is Cameroon’s Minister of Women’s Empowerment and the Family. She has publicly condemned child marriages, saying that it is “immoral to sell out girls as if they were property.”

Minister Ondoa has helped launch advocacy campaigns and collaborated with NGOs as well as community and religious leaders in rural areas. But she has not convinced the government to raise the legal marriage age—15 years old for girls and 18 for boys.

The advocacy campaigns have, however, borne fruit. Many girls say “no” to family attempts to sell them off. Abba Mairamou was only 12 years old when her father pulled her out of primary school and offered her to his friend in marriage. Ms. Mairamou says, “I refused and my father got angry and wanted to send me away from the house. I was desperate.”

She adds: “Later, my father was invited to a meeting and was persuaded to [oppose] early and involuntary marriage. This completely changed my father and me. I not only refused to be a victim of involuntary marriage, but today I am a fighter against it.”

Ms. Mairamou formed the Association for the Autonomy and the Rights of Girls. The organization sensitizes teenage girls and parents in her neighbourhood against early marriages.

She is proud of what she has achieved. Ms. Mairamou says, “We now offer shelter to many victims of forced marriages, and many girls are now standing up to that hurtful custom.”

Ms. Taguieke used to dream of becoming a teacher. Child marriage could have ended that dream, but now she is free to pursue her goal.

To read the full article on which this story is based, Cameroonian women and girls saying no to child marriage, go to: http://www.ipsnews.net/2015/06/cameroonian-women-and-girls-saying-no-to-child-marriage/ [1]

For more information on child marriage, go to the UNICEF website: http://data.unicef.org/child-protection/child-marriage#sthash.gTB9fIqF.dpuf [2]

Photo: Bienvienue Taguieke, now 15, who refused to be sold into marriage when she was 12 for the equivalent of 8.5 dollars. Credit: Ngala Killian Chimtom/IPS