CAMEROON: The Agony of a Victim of Forced Marriage
I watched her drowning in depression; Agnes (pseudonym) was dying! I had exhausted all my counseling techniques but she still refused to speak out. She would not confine in anyone not even me. Never! I told myself I will not watch my fellow sister die. But what could I do to help her?
Agnes, 32, was a victim of forced marriage and yet has silently wallowed in crushing despair for close to a decade. This man came for temporal work in her village and then invited her to visit him in the city, and ignorantly she went believing it’s an answered prayer to the pressure to marry. And now she is neither marry no single.
It’s still common place in Cameroon to see young industrious females being forced to marry and compelled to stay in such marriages at the mercy of some heartless men just to preserve “family dignity”. About 47% of Cameroonian girls under 18 are married – most of them against their will. Like most women who suffer from this phenomenon, Agnes’ outcries against domestic and sexual violence fell on deaf ears in her family. All attempts by her to walk away from the woes were equally frustrated by the same family members who considered leaving her ‘marital home’ a taboo.
“No one leaves their marriage no matter what. It can’t happen in our family,” they claimed. That is how the mother of two children was compelled to stay in the distressful marriage. Hope, joy and even life was steadily being drained from her, dragging her to her grave. Many like her have agonized and died in silence while their stories remained untold.
Perceiving how grievous her case was, I tried to intrude into her world of trauma and pain but it appeared she had given up on life. She like most women who are victims of forced marriage had accepted her fate and was waiting for death to swallow her up under her ‘husband’s’ oppression and suppression.
I knew just how calamitous Agnes’ destiny was, so I persisted and tried harder to get her to speak out. Her sorrow was so deep and real. It looked like I was throwing water on a duck’s back.
Now, in a desperate attempt to salvage her from this precarious condition, I contacted her neighbors who incessantly pleaded with me to help if I could. With a burning determination to help, I proceeded to the organization where she works and advised she be referred for psychosocial counseling. I knew no one can empower another; only the individual can empower herself or himself to make choices or to speak out. Agnes needed to speak out and be helped!
Time was running out, cumbersome administrative procedures delayed the much needed intervention in her case. She was deteriorating as her supposed husband spared no effort in verbally and physically assaulting her. She could barely walk, she was shivering every time I saw her and was no longer oriented in her speech. I was so restless and invited her to my house where I rebuked her, challenging her to choose either to speak out or die in silence. That day, she recounted her ordeal to me.
“I am a married widow…, I am not even married. My ‘husband’ has not paid my bride price and does not care for me as a wife. He knows I will soon die and does not want to bury me in their family compound as tradition demands. He says this will mar his chances of remarrying soon after I’m gone. We’ve been ‘married’ for 9 years and it’s been all years of pain. I wonder if marriages are like mine. He is a drunk and a smoker. He had been married twice before but two of his wives before me died. He has children everywhere and imposes them on me.”
[She paused, as tears run down her cheek.] “I didn’t even know he was HIV positive until I was pregnant for my first child. Every month, he seizes all my salary and leaves me with nothing because he thinks I’ll send money to my parents. I’m dying but he’s vowed not to use any money on me. He tells me out rightly that his wish is for me to die soon so he can remarry. He insists I bear children for him but my CD4 count is so low and I fear I may die in the process. He is also HIV positive and has refused to take drugs, he doesn’t belief AIDS is real. He rapes me always and when I cry he tells me it’s satisfying when women cry during sex. I hate sex, I hate him, I hate marriage, and I regret ever knowing him. I have attempted severally to leave him but my family insists I must stay in the marriage”.
“To my family, people know that I’m married and I must stay in it even if that will cost me my life. The other time when I took ill, I pleaded with him to assist me to the toilet but he blatantly refused, cursing me to die so he gets another wife. I crept to the toilet like a baby. Please, help me! I’m now HIV positive and I don’t want to die!”
Her story sunk deep into my heart. Still hoping to help her out, I met her husband to ask about his plan for the wife’s treatment. In a very discourteous manner, he began to make some utterances which confirmed what Agnes had told me.
“Let her die, she’ll be buried in their home not ours. I can’t spend a dime on her. She claims she is wise but I’m wiser. I have bought a farm in the Southwest Region and I’ll abandon her to die here while I go start a new life. Madam [referring to me] don’t waste your time!”
His words fell on me like a bomb! However, I was unstoppable in my fight for the vindication of this fellow sister. I rallied her family members and talked with them. Once more, I went to the organization she works with and at this time a delegation was dispatched to her house and she was immediately taken to the hospital. Her husband was given stern words of caution.
Yes!!! She lives. But the struggle against forced marriages in Cameroon and domestic violence continues. As a result of her being able to speak out, Agnes has been empowered and now manages her own finances with no bullying. She’s even able to save for the rainy days with a micro-finance institution. Also, she’s been transferred to work away from her a man who treated her with disdain. With her employer’s support she can now move away from her woes to a fresh beginning. Each day she celebrates her health and success. She is an overcomer!
For years now, I have been advocating for the empowerment of the Cameroonian woman especially those living with disabilities. Today, I have a renewed passion to work towards the emancipation of women and girls like Agnes whose pride and voices are lost to oppressive patriarchal systems. I presently work in partnership with women’s Empowerment centers, Social Affairs, Legal Institutions and NGOs involved in women’s empowerment. My motto is, “Free my Sisters from Bondage”. Let’s shout this loud till all our sisters are freed.