As she watched a friend struggle to survive a nightmare marriage, Clodine knew she had to do everything she could to help.
“I knew the choice to speak out would be Agnes’s alone.”
My colleague Agnes was drowning in depression. At 32, she had been trapped in a forced marriage for close to a decade. She met her husband when he arrived in her village one day for temporary work. Soon after, he invited her to visit him in the city.
At the time, Agnes was exhausted by the pressure to marry and believed this invitation would answer her prayers for a husband to save her family from shame. There were no marriages among Agnes’s siblings and no in-laws, the pride of most homes.
Like many young, industrious women, Agnes was pressured to marry and compelled to stay in her marriage to a heartless man to preserve ‘family dignity’. Her story is part of a larger problem of forced marriage in Cameroon—an issue that especially affects our country’s youth. UNICEF reports that more than 1 out of 3 girls in Cameroon are married before they turn 18.
Agnes suffered domestic and sexual violence at the hands of her new husband. Like many women in her situation, her outcries fell on deaf ears. Family members blocked her attempts to walk away from her woes. They believed leaving the ‘marital home’ is a taboo.
“No one leaves their marriage no matter what. It can’t happen in our family,” they claimed. This lack of support compelled Agnes and her two children to stay in an abusive home. I have witnessed women like Agnes die in silence, while their stories remain untold.
I told myself I would not watch my fellow sister die. But what could I do to help her? I tried to let myself into her world of trauma and pain, but she would not confide in anyone, not even me.
I persisted, knowing just how calamitous Agnes’s destiny was. But my attempts to get her to speak out looked like throwing water on a duck’s back. She appeared to have given up on her life.
Neighbors pleaded with me to help if I could, adding to my burning determination. I went to the organization where Agnes works and advised them to refer her for psychosocial counseling. I tried everything I could think of, but I knew the choice to speak out would be Agnes’s alone.
As cumbersome administrative procedures delayed the much-needed intervention in Agnes’s case, I watched her deteriorate. Her husband continued verbally and physically assaulting her. Whenever I saw her, she was shivering, she could barely walk, and she was no longer oriented in her speech. I invited her to my house, where I challenged her to either speak out or die in silence.
That day, she opened up to me, recounting her ordeal:
“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 other 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 ran down her cheek.
“I didn’t even know he was HIV positive until I was pregnant with 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 outright 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 believe 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 several times 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 the marriage even if that will cost me my life. One 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 can get 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!”
Agnes’s story sunk deep into my heart. I went to her husband to ask about his plan for his wife’s treatment.
“Let her die,” he said. “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, 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 Agnes’s family members. Once more, I went to the organization she works for. 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.
Agnes’s organization transferred her to a different city to work far away from this man who treated her with disdain. With her employer’s support she is starting a fresh beginning. She now manages her own finances without bullying. She’s even able to save for the rainy days through a microfinance institution. She is alive. She is an overcomer. Each day she celebrates her health and success.
Agnes has renewed my passion to work toward the emancipation of women and girls who are losing their pride and voices to oppressive systems. My motto is, “Free my sisters from bondage.” Let’s shout this loud until all our sisters are freed.