An Unhappy Union
Gusts of Saharan wind, a dry and dusty harmattan, swell the tents that cling to the bush. They blow on Gado-Badzéré, Cameroon's largest site for refugees from the Central African Republic, where two men sitting by a stall are having a charged conversation.
"The Council of Elders has instructed me to admonish you," one of the men tells the other, 33-year-old Abdu*. "You must not hit your wife. If she disobeys you again, you should reprimand her. After a third misbehaviour, you may repudiate her."
A few yards away, Abdu's wife, Sadia*, hides her tears in her knees. A pretty girl of 14, she married only three months ago. She was lured by the prospect of a union that would deliver her from a precarious life.
Like Sadia, 15 million girls around the world get married each year before reaching the age of 18. The reasons vary; some are forced by their families, others are deceived by their future husbands and many are simply looking for a better life.
Sadia's new husband, Abdu, wears a loose-fitting djellaba that masks the atrophy in his right arm and leg. He admits that he does not understand his wife. "Our first two months went by without a single problem," he says. But recently Sadia's attitude has changed, he adds. "She's turned stubborn and rebellious. She spends her days by the river, yet she never does the laundry."
The day before, Sadia refused to get on with her chores. "I grabbed her and slapped her face," Abdu says. "What else could I do? She plays with the boys, I know she does."
Sadia tried to run away, but members of the self-defence committee – set up by refugees to guard the site – quickly found her and dragged her to her father. He punished her for the damage done to the family's honour, before sending her back to her husband. "Either she relents or I will have to repudiate her," Abdu says. "I can't live without a wife."
Abdu is tormented by the failure of his first marriage. Back in the Central African Republic, as a trader in his twenties, he married a girl of 13. They had two children together. "But my children kept dying. They ate dirt!" he laments. At age 20, after giving birth a third time, she and the newborn both died.
More than anything, Abdu wants children who will bear his name and take care of him. "That's why I took a young girl; they get easily pregnant. But if Sadia does not bear me children, I'll repudiate her," he warns. Exiled from his homeland, Abdu hopes to regain some dignity. "I just want to be like the others: I want my wife to respect me and to bring me tea when I have guests."
But Sadia fears for her life. "I know what happened to his first wife," she mutters. "That's because he took no care of her. I want to go back to my father."
When girls are not fully developed physically, becoming pregnant often leads to miscarriages – or even death. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among girls and young women aged 15 to 19 in sub-Saharan Africa – and the second-greatest cause globally. Those who survive often have lasting physical scars (including fistulae caused by tearing of the vaginal tissue) and are ostracized by their communities. The emotional toll extends beyond these young mothers, often affecting their children as well.
Sadia mourns her bygone childhood. "He promised to buy me clothes and spoil me once he had repaid his debts," she recalls. "Instead, the day I arrived in his shelter, he ripped my schoolbooks."
Now, the teenager is overwhelmed by her new responsibilities. Three months ago, Sadia spent her days playing with her school pals. But today she is not allowed to talk to them or visit her family. If she refuses to comply, she suffers her husband's wrath. Sadia points to two bamboo sticks nearby. "He uses them to hit me on my neck and on my back. Sometimes he threatens me with stones." As she massages her swollen wrist, she sobs. "For the first time my father beat me – for running away from here," she whispers. "Our age difference and my loneliness are draining me."
"Everyone seems anxious to get married as soon as possible. But the consequences can be disastrous."
As of 2014, the Central African Republic had the world's fifth-highest rate of child marriage. According to UNICEF, 23 per cent of women now between the ages of 20 and 49 got married before the age of 15, and 60 per cent before the age of 18. Researchers have found a link between the level of poverty and premature marriages. As displacement grows, so too does the practice of early marriage.
Early marriages are more common in rural areas, where families may have less access to education. As Sadia's aunt, a refugee from a middle-sized town in the Central Africa Republic, puts it: "For us, the Fulbé-Hausa, a woman has to be fully developed and have finished school before she can marry. Myself, I married when I turned 19."
Abdu comes from the Mbororo tribe. Traditionally his people are nomadic herders, living in the bush with their cattle, and their children rarely attend school. Sadia's aunt says expectations have grown complicated now that "all the tribes are mixed together" as refugees. "Everyone seems anxious to get married as soon as possible. But the consequences can be disastrous, as in Sadia's case."
UNHCR is working with health and education specialists to curb the practice of early marriage. UNHCR partners focussing on women's and children's issues hold community meetings, often using visual props to address sensitive issues and get the community talking – in part by conveying to refugees its harmful, long-term effects.
At Gado-Badzéré in Cameroon, the refugee agency works together with UN Women and the International Medical Corps to provide support to survivors of gender-based violence. This support includes women centres staffed by volunteer refugee outreach workers who have been trained on gender-based violence issues and support. Along with operating in the centres, they also go out into the camps and communities to raise awareness and serve as focal points for women and children currently facing these issues. Sadia's case is among those referred to UN Women.
But a lack of funding for these programs, which must compete with other urgent priorities, has led to only a handful of social workers, who can hardly cope with a total population of more than 22,000 refugees. Not everyone can be reached with prevention messages, and hundreds of other cases go unreported.
For cases that are reported, UNHCR and its partners provide support through trained counsellors and group activities. Additionally, UNHCR provides legal advice and support to victims who want to go to court against the perpetrator. Survivors of sexual and gender-based violence are also made aware of opportunities such as educational and livelihood programs that can help them overcome their situation.
"If I find a way out of this hell, I will go back to my father's and finish school."
Sadia is hoping that UN Women will mediate to find a solution for her unhappy marriage to Abdu. Under Cameroonian law, a marriage cannot legally be contracted before the bride has reached 15 years of age, which potentially renders hers null and void. But time is short. Repudiated women stand no chance of ever marrying again.
This public shame exposes them to new dangers: men harass them frequently, for example, and because isolation exacerbates poverty, some turn to prostitution or fall into the hands of criminal networks. Fifty kilometres away from Gado-Badzéré, brothels prey on refugee women to satisfy the demand by the region's gold miners.
"If I find a way out of this hell, I will go back to my father's and finish school," Sadia promises. "After that, I can sell donuts or I can learn how to sew." Then, smiling shyly, she drops her voice to a whisper. "Or maybe I can get to know that boy that I find so cute."
A few days later, before UN Women staff have even had time to take up Sadia's case, an exasperated Abdu kicks her out. He vows to take back some clothes and fabrics that were part of the dowry, and to begin looking for a new, more docile, wife.
As for Sadia's father, he has agreed to accept his daughter back into the home. But her future remains uncertain. Abdu will not divorce her as long as her father keeps the sum of 90,000 CFA francs [about €135] paid to him for the marriage.
"I never wanted that money," her father says. "Abdu forced me to accept it to get my favour and so that I would offer him my daughter in marriage." If a resolution cannot be found, he will send Sadia to live with her uncle in a town 20 kilometres away.
"I want to protect her," he says, "from insults coming from Abdu and the other men."
* Names have been changed for protection reasons.