By Katie Tong
Adolescent Girls in Emergency Specialist
The North and Far North of Cameroon are currently facing one of the worst flood disasters the area has ever known. Thousands of families – an estimated 67,000 people – have been displaced by constantly rising waters that have destroyed homes, cattle, crops, and the entire belongings of households.
In the far extreme North, Plan has been assisting these displaced families with basic immediate needs. But a far more insidious problem awaits – that of child marriage.
It takes nearly five hours to travel from Maroua, the district capital, to Kai-Kai village close to the Chad border. It is 250 kilometres but the last 50 is a dirt road that is half submerged by the rising flood waters, and only a sturdy 4x4 and a daring driver can get through. Families from surrounding villages that have been almost completely submerged are camped out in the Catholic primary school – overcrowded, squalid conditions only made the more miserable by the continuing rains that leave everything damp. Men, women, boys are girls are all suffering.
But we are concerned that very shortly many girls will be suffering even more. Northern Cameroon is a culturally conservative area with traditionally high levels of child marriage for girls – many as young as 11 or 12 and often married to men 15 years their senior. As we know from other disasters – Niger food crisis, Pakistan floods – emergencies often exacerbate the level of child marriage due to desperate times pushing parents to exchange their young daughters for a dowry and one less mouth to feed. This is often combined with lack of education facilities for girls in emergencies, and the fear of ‘dishonour’ connected with pre-marital relations when so many different boys and girls are forced to live together in such confined spaces.
In Kai-Kai there haven’t been any child marriages in the one month since these families have been displaced, but as the older women tell me, this is only due to the fact that no men have come to ask for their daughters – yet! The women are clear that if men come – when they come – then they will have no choice but to send their young daughters for marriage. Poverty exacerbated by the disaster dictates their lack of choice. As observed by Plan’s Country Disaster Response Coordinator, Henri Noel, it is only lack of opportunity that currently keeps these girls safe. Once the men start coming for young brides, these girls – barely past puberty – will be forced out of education, and into the home of a strange man to become a wife – and soon after a mother – before they have stopped being children.
Plan is working to put an end to this practice in Cameroon.
- See also Roland Berehoudougou's blog: Flood Victims Offering Young Daughters in Early Marriage for their ‘Protection’ who visited Kai-Kai after Katie Tong.