Sixteen-year-old Inna won’t be returning to school even though coronavirus restrictions have eased in Ngaoundéré, Cameroon. During the lockdown, she was married off to a 55-year-old cattle herder. Her father said he didn’t want one more mouth to feed.
She said, “My father complained that instead of me eating his food and occupying his space, I better get married.” She has seven siblings. She adds, “My father told me that marriage is my ticket to heaven—not education.”
Cameroon instituted lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus on March 17. As of mid-June, there were nearly 10,000 cases and more than 275 deaths from the coronavirus. The government has since eased restrictions, including re-opening some schools in early June. In addition to trying to contain the virus, Cameroon has also been beset by fighting between government forces and separatist insurgent groups in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions.
Child marriage is a common practice, especially in northern Cameroon. According to UNICEF, more than 30% of Cameroonian girls are married before they are 18.
Inna is from the Adamawa region of northern Cameroon. After her marriage, she tried to escape multiple times. But each time she was returned to her new home in the cattle farming area south of Garoua, in the North Region.
Last year, when Inna’s father started bringing potential husbands to their house, she reported him to a women’s centre. That led to her father badly beating her.
She says that, since the pandemic, there have been fewer visits to the area by women’s rights activists or social workers. Police officers often side with the families, she says.
Although Cameroon ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, families often defend child marriages as cultural, or cite a law that allows girls to be married at 15 or older, according to Nsen Abeng, a Yaoundé-based lawyer. The UN convention sets the minimum age for both boys and girls to marry at 18 and is supposed to supersede the law.
Forced child marriage carries a sentence of up to 10 years and a fine, but Ms. Abeng said it is rare for such cases to be prosecuted.
There are far-reaching consequences to the continuing practice of child marriage. Girls are often stripped of educational opportunities and subjugated to lives of chores, childbearing, and domestic violence, according to UNICEF. The World Health Organization says the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 are complications from pregnancy or childbirth.
Aid groups warn that forced child marriages could be on the rise globally due to school closures, food insecurity, and economic uncertainty triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Ethiopia, more than 500 girls have been rescued from forced marriages since March, while anecdotal evidence suggests spikes in other countries. such as Afghanistan, India, South Sudan, and Yemen.
The United Nations Population Fund, or UNFPA, has predicted that the anticipated economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, along with disrupted efforts to end child marriage, could result in some 13 million more child marriages in the next decade.
Girls in developing countries are also at a substantial risk of gender-based violence, early pregnancy, and dropping out once schools re-open, according to a new survey from the Center for Global Development, a Washington D.C.-based think tank.
For 14-year-olds Djouley* and Yawa,* marriage came amidst the school shutdown and the Muslim feast of Ramadan. They live in Maroua, the capital of Cameroon’s Far North region.
Child marriages often rise in parts of Cameroon during Ramadan as families look for additional help with cooking and chores. The school closures just gave extra cover for the practice.
Djouley was married to a 47-year-old butcher. She says, “I feel irritated when I call him husband. … His friends visit us every day and I cook for them. I also help the co-wives. At night, I pray he doesn’t come to my room, but he comes some days.”
Unlike her peers, who now have husbands who are old enough to be their fathers or grandfathers, Yawa’s husband is in his 20s.
She says, “I could have been happy if he came to marry me after my education. … Nobody asked if I like him. Then, [at the end of March], I was told to go and live in his house. I am hardly allowed to go out. I wish I could go back to school.”
*Please note that the girls’ last names have been withheld over concern for the privacy of the families.
This story was adapted from an article written by Emeline Fonyuy for The New Humanitarian, titled “Child marriage worries rise amid coronavirus lockdown in Cameroon.” To read the full story, go to: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2020/06/11/Cameroon-coronavirus-child-marriage 
Photo: Children walk to school in the morning in Cameroon. (Ryan Brown/UN Women, Kylee Pedersen/TNH)