UNHCR takes preventive action against forced child marriages in Chad
MILE REFUGEE CAMP, Chad, December 2 (UNHCR) - A pained look crosses 11-year-old Madiha's* face as she quietly tell the story of her father's plans to marry her off - without her knowledge and against her wishes - to one of his friends, a man of 38.
"I was afraid of marrying this man. It would have been like marrying my grandfather," says Madiha, the oldest child in a Sudanese refugee family living in Mile Camp in eastern Chad. The man paid a dowry for Madiha but - in a rare move - her mother, sitting by Madiha's side, stepped in to prevent the marriage.
According to official statistics, some 20 young girls living in refugee camps in eastern Chad near the border with Sudan have been forced into marriage already this year. The real figure is probably much higher because many cases go unreported.
In all 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad - home to some 200,000 Sudanese refugees - the UN refugee agency is carrying out programmes aimed at refugee leaders, refugees themselves and camp authorities to discourage early marriage.
The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child specifically gives girls the right to be protected from early marriage, which is classified as a harmful social practice.
Being forced into marriage at ages as young as 11 not only robs girls of their childhood and any chance of an education, it risks exposing them to exploitation and violence.
In addition, such young girls' bodies are not yet developed enough for sexual relations and resulting pregnancies. Teenage girls are more vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Many teenage mothers - and often their babies as well - die during childbirth.
In many African societies, girls are valued less than boys. Parents who consider their daughter a burden at home may at the same time see her as an asset to be sold to improve the welfare of the family.
It's a tale Madiha's mother, Haoua* - now only 25 years old herself - knows only too well. She had been an orphan and also only 11 years old back in Sudan when she was forced to marry a much older man, and gave birth to Madiha three years later.
"I suffered a lot," she says. "My parents had died and my relatives needed the dowry money." When her husband presented the idea of selling Madiha to his 38-year-old friend, Haoua knew she couldn't subject Madiha to the same fate. "I don't want my daughter to suffer like I have suffered and to go through what I have been through."
In order to avoid forced marriages, young refugee girls like Madiha sometimes have no other recourse but to run away from their family; some even attempt suicide. Madiha was thinking of running away until her mother came to her rescue.
Standing up to her husband came with a price, though, in a society where men do not listen to women, and women have little or no say in the future of their children.
Despite the fact that Haoua had just given birth to a baby boy in Mile Camp, her husband beat her severely for refusing to let Madiha be married. Now, holding her small baby in her arms, she gestures to her face, where the scars from the beating are still visible.
After the beating, Madiha and Haoua turned for help to UNHCR's community services officers, and the managers of the camp, CARE. Community services officers stepped in to mediate with Madiha's father, explaining the importance of her getting an education. It wasn't easy, but they convinced him to call off the forced marriage.
However, the dowry money paid by the prospective groom was long gone. Once more Haoua took action and sold her jewellery to pay back the dowry.
It was a sacrifice Haoua was glad to make. She warns sternly that if her husband again attempts to marry Madiha to any man against her will, "I will simply run away to Darfur [Sudan, just across the border] with my daughter and my baby. I want Madiha to have a good life, to study and be able to choose a good husband who is not a drunkard."
Madiha, who now attends school in the camp with her friends and says she loves it, is determined to make the most of the chance her mother has given her.
"I will do what my mother tells me to do at school, and I want to study,"
Madiha says, looking admiringly at her mother. Then she adds confidently: "I would like to be a medical doctor or a teacher."
By Ginette Le Breton in Mile refugee camp, Chad
* Names changed to protect identities.