It is easy to decry the current figures around child marriage at urban level, but at the community level, the story is different.  As a teacher and a community mobilizer for the empowerment of girls, I have come to realize the huge gap between policy development and our ability to actually end harmful traditional practices such as child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).  Such abuses run contrary to both national and international law, as marriage for these girls is not a matter of choice.

 

While organizing focused group discussions, I have heard stories from girls themselves of the ordeal they face as child brides and the limited opportunities available to them.  In Cameroon, more than one in every three girls are married before they turn 18.  According to UNICEF’s State of the World’s Children 2016 report, Cameroon ranks 20th in the countries with highest prevalence of child brides.  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 (73%), Extreme North (72%), Adamawa (59%), East (59%), South (43%), Centre (34%), South West (28%), West (24%), North West (17%) and Littoral (13%).  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 that they marry earlier than boys.  It is believed that the future and dignity of girls in the country is secured only in her marital home, which is why girls are therefore denied the opportunity to go to school.  Instead, they are expected to undertake chores such as cooking, fetching water, and cleaning the home in preparation for their married life.

In Cameroon, a new penal code promulgated into law on the 12th of July 2017 aims to end this harmful traditional practice.

The New Penal Code, under section 356, states:

  1. Whoever compels anyone to marry shall be punished with imprisonment for from 5 – 10 years with a fine of from CFAF  25,000 – 1,000,000 (USD $45-$1,700)

  2. Where the victim is under the age of 18, the punishment may not be less than 2 years imprisonment, whatever the mitigating circumstances

  3. Whoever gives in marriage a boy or a girl under 18 shall be punished as under the last two foregoing subsections

  4. Under conviction, the court may deprive the offender of parental power and disqualify him from being the guardian or curator of any person for the time prescribed by section 31 (4) of this penal code.

This is an important step in the fight against child marriage, as it is the first time the government has ever criminalized any marriage contracted for girls below the age of 18.  This is an important first step given that one of the preconditions to ending child marriage is to have strong laws that protect girls, but how does this translate into community action?

In Cameroon, national laws are published in both English and French, and in most of the communities where the practice of child marriage is common, many of the locals do not speak either of these languages.  The enactment and publication of laws in a language not understood by the community doesn’t have any real effect, and it is important to note that laws alone cannot end child marriage if the whole community is not mobilized to lead the desired change.

Child marriage is based on culture held and promoted by community leaders.  Therefore, efforts to end child marriage should engage said leaders to drive changing of attitudes and perceptions in their communities.  It is also important to engage families and talk to them about different ways their children can improve their livelihoods, rather than presenting marriage as the only viable option for girls.

I remember meeting Fatima[1] early this year.  She had been forced into marriage by her father to pay off his debts.  Though Fatima wanted to pursue her education, her parents were more concerned about the economic benefit she would bring to the family if sold as a bride.  Her mum, though sympathetic, could barely do anything as the community leaders all supported her father’s desire to marry her off.  Neither Fatima’s parents nor her community leaders were aware of the new law, and no community structure existed to support the implementation of the law. Fatima is now married and will soon be a mother, and all opportunities – including her chance to receive an education – have now been shut from her.

There are many girls with stories like Fatima’s, populated with other dark subplots: HIV/AIDS, obstetric fistula, death during childbirth, intimate partner violence.  It is critically important for government departments responsible for female empowerment to have local offices which focus on sensitizing communities, translating policy into action, raising awareness of new laws using local languages, and working with community actors.  In one of my projects, I worked with community and traditional leaders to start Gender Inequality committees which comprise of traditional and community leaders (both men and women) and young people. Meeting once every month, the leaders discuss issues around women’s empowerment, are trained on human rights mechanisms, and are supported to advocate in their communities on the inequalities faced by women and how these can be overcome.

Access to educational opportunities is key to reducing child marriage.  Though the penal code in section 355–2 criminalizes parents who refuse to send their children to school, high poverty rates and lack of school tracking, - not to mention a lack of free educational opportunities – presents a capacity gap which needs to be filled.  The content in the average educational curriculum does not prepare girls for autonomous decision-making regarding her own well-being.  In most communities and rural schools, sex is still a taboo and discussions are limited to the school milieu.  It is vital to use alternative structures for education, with focus on family and community actors.

Will policy alone end child marriage? The answer to this question lies in the gaps between policy, ownership and implementation.  In many communities, policy is not known nor understood, which inhibits the likelihood of implementation. Women and girls who know about policy can barely find a favorable support structure in which they can seek redress against an unwanted marriage. There is need for policymakers and non-governmental organizations to focus on community mobilization at the grassroots level.  Legitimacy to any advocacy requires the people concerned to be active participants, which means that we must design programs that build the confidence of young girls, educate them on their rights and mobilize communities around them towards ending child marriage in conjunction with guiding policy.

 

[1] Her name has been changed for legal reasons

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