This has been a landmark year in the fight to end child marriage in Cameroon; the government passed new progressive legislation that bans the practice.
On July 12, 2016, the President signed into law a new Penal Code which makes it illegal for an individual to force another person into marriage. The perpetrator of this type of sexual enslavement—whether a parent or a new husband—can face five to ten years in prison. The law also criminalizes early marriage: planning the marriage of a girl or a boy under the age of 18, regardless of consent, is punishable, with at least two years of prison.
These legal changes are a breakthrough for sexual and reproductive health and rights; the voices of feminist advocates were finally heard in the halls of power. This year, Cameroon is following through on the international norms it has endorsed on paper since 1989, when it became a party to International Conventions that set the minimum age of marriage at 18. And, on November 18, Cameroon became the 16th country to launch a domestic effort as part of the African Union’s campaign to end child marriage. This launch marks the beginning of a series of consultations between government officials, the African Union, and civil society to draft action plans, policies, and programs to end this harmful practice.
Since this summer’s win, however, civil society has not let the government off the hook. Organizations, including one of our grantee partners, the Association de Lutte Contre les Violences Faites aux Femmes (Association to Combat Violence Against Women, or ALVF-EN), are calling for this new regulation to be enforced. They are also advocating for a more comprehensive approach to empowering women and girls that includes expanding their access to education.
While the new law is a victory, implementation will require continued effort on the part of the government. Local activists are somewhat skeptical. Sike Bille, the president of ALVF-EN, told us she thinks women and girls deserve more than toothless regulations and campaigns. For Ms. Bille, this launch is only meaningful if these new laws and programs can change customs beyond the main cities where the practice is most prevalent.
For over thirty years now, Ms. Bille and her peers at another IWHC grantee partner, the Association pour la Promotion de l’Autonomie et des Droits de la Jeune Fille/Femme (Association for the Promotion of Autonomy and the Rights of Young Girls and Women, or APAD) have worked directly in these communities. They engage religious leaders, parents, teachers, and education officials in a northern town called Maroua to talk about the harmful causes and effects of child marriage. They also build the capacity of survivors of early and forced marriage to lead autonomous lives and become champions for women’s and girls’ rights. Today, one of the survivors, Danedjo, has become a fierce advocate for women and girls and is respected as a traditional leader in her own right.
This is just one of many stories that show how ALVF-EN and APAD, through community engagement, have changed the lives of women and girls in very remote regions—where national policies have remained pieces of paper that are largely ignored.
Ten years ago, APAD was holding workshops in town markets for girls during the day since they weren’t in school. Today, after years of local advocacy encouraging communities to support girls’ education, APAD holds these sessions in the afternoon because girls now attend school.
These girls are growing up to be vocal activists, pushing for gender equality and reform. For them, the battle does not stop. They are rallying support for the first-ever legislation in Cameroon to criminalize all forms of violence against women—not just early and forced marriage.
This year the Cameroonian government has signaled that safeguarding the rights and health of women and girls is a priority. It is time for the government to act on the policies and standards it has put in place and recognize that legal reform on child marriage is just a first step. Moving forward, the government should work with feminist groups like ALVF-EN and APAD to make sure that every woman and girl, in all 10 regions of Cameroon, can exercise her right to sexual and reproductive health and to leading a life free of violence and full of promise.