Early and forced marriage is illegal in Cameroon, but economic and social factors allow the tradition to continue. Approximately 36 percent of girls under 18 are married — often against their will. In the extreme north region of the country, the figure jumps to nearly 80 percent. Early and forced marriage is not only a human rights issue but also a sexual and reproductive rights and health issue. Forcing a girl to marry against her will and without her consent violates her rights to movement, education, and liberty, and puts her at risk of violence, sexual transmitted infections, including HIV, and life-threatening pregnancy related complications such as fistula.
Association pour la Promotion de l’Autonomie et des Droits de la Jeune Fille/Femme (APAD) is a youth-led organization based in Maruoa, Cameroon, whose membership and leadership consists entirely of survivors of early and forced marriage. APAD is spearheading efforts in the extreme north region of the country to prevent child marriage and support married girls. APAD educates girls and communities about their human rights, including the right to choose whom and when to marry, and provides literacy and skills-building programs to empower survivors of early and forced marriage to be economically independent and lead autonomous lives.
APAD was founded by Siké Billé, the Coordinator of the Extreme North branch of the Association de Lutte contre les Violences Faites aux Femmes (ALVF). When Siké moved to Maroua to open a support center for survivors of violence, she found that many of the women had one thing in common: they had been forcibly married at very young ages and left to fend for themselves and their children when abandoned by their husbands. Siké then dedicated her efforts to eliminating early and forced marriage and empowering survivors. In 2001 ALVF helped a few of the center’s young clients form APAD to support one another and promote the empowerment of survivors in the region. APAD became an independent organization in 2009.
Since its inception, APAD has trained more than 150 survivors of early and forced marriage to speak out against this practice. In addition, 17 influential traditional leaders have been trained to convince parents of young girls to refrain from marrying them off and insist they remain in school.
APAD has built strong relationships with traditional and religious leaders in Maroua who have shown extraordinary support for APAD's work by educating parents about the consequences of early and forced marriage; encouraging parents to keep their girls in school and informing neighborhood girls about APAD's discussion groups.
With IWHC’s support, APAD is currently working to educate more religious, traditional and community leaders in five different areas of Maroua on the consequences of early and forced marriage and collaborate with them to educate parents on the issue and encourage them to keep their daughters in school. This effort includes a public education component through mass media including radio, banners and pamphlets, and bimonthly workshops for girls and their parents to learn about the benefits of girls education; building strong, open mother-daughter relationships; the consequences of human rights abuses such as early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation; and sexual and reproductive health issues, such as family planning.
APAD continues to empower survivors of early and forced marriage and other young women living in Maroua through literacy and income-generating activities such as sewing and embroidery. APAD will hold regular workshops with young women to train them on human rights, gender equality and sexual and reproductive health issues, and to speak out against early and forced marriage.
The African Conference on Sexual Health and Rights presents an opportunity to propose strategies to shift the culture of silence on sexual and reproductive health and rights.
The numbers are staggering. Every year, 10 million girls under the age of 18 enter early and forced marriages, usually to men much older than they are. By becoming a child bride, a girl gets nearly every odd stacked against her. This epidemic re …