By Zonziewoh Mbondgulo, WFAC Founder/Exec. Director, and Nancy Makeoh, WFAC Community Outreach Manger.
Ninth in the #KnowHerStory series
“I felt lied to and cheated.”
“I refuse to walk in my mum’s shoes” says Mister, a 14 year-old child bride, talking to WFAC about how she was forced to marry a man who is three times her age.
Ms. Mister* narrates her struggle to us, fighting against marrying a 35 year-old man.
“It all started when I left the city and travelled to the village to spend the summer holidays with my grand mum”.
In August 2013, Mister recalls her mum joking about her meeting her husband in the village. A conversation she never took seriously until months later, when she realised that her mum’s primary intention of sending her to the village was to marry her off.
Cycle of abuse
Mister’s mum is a single mother, and a child bride survivor herself. Mister’s mum was married off to an old man when she was still a minor, in exchange for some sort of traditional rites. Mister’s mum suffered abuse, neglect and violence in her marriage. At around 20, she escaped the abusive marriage. But as per tradition, the consequences are that she can only re-marry if her ‘arranged’ husband accepts to liberate her. Mister’s mum is not the only woman who has been a victim of harmful traditional practices in Bafanji, a North West region of Cameroon.
Like Mister’s mum, there are many more whose tales remain untold.
Informed by her mum’s experience, Mister refused to walk in her mum’s shoes.
“I was only 14, and I had been promoted to the next class (form two)... If anyone had whispered to me that at this age I will be talking about marriage. I would have asked them to re-think.”
It was weeks before school resumed and all Mister wanted was to begin the new school year; to learn new things, as well as get the chance to live with her great-grandmum, who remains the eldest in the family.
She had only been in the village for a few weeks when she started hearing rumours of one man wanting to marry her cousin. Mister was astonished and couldn't believe why a 35-year old or even older would be attracted to a 14 year-old girl.
“I found it absurd!” she says: “I couldn't understand how someone would actually think of marrying a 14 year-old. I also couldn't understand even why a parent would allow their daughter marry someone that old.
“In my mind, I knew it was wrong and had wished my opinion would matter - but little did I know the whole marriage arrangement was not actually about my cousin but me”, she says, with such heavy emotion.
“My mum went on to arrange my wedding without my knowledge”.
“I felt lied to and cheated”, Mister emphasises.
“One day, my mother visited me in the village, and out of curiosity, I asked about my cousin and how things were going on with the wedding. I got no response!
Days after my mum had left, this man visited my granny. He came with gifts, shared to everyone and gave one to me too! I received the gifts and never used them. I kept them. No one, including my mum, knew I had been keeping his gifts.
I did this because I was taught that if someone you don't like gives you something and you don't want to be rude by returning the gift, you take it and keep it – who knows, someday, you might find a way of returning the gift”.
After a while, Mister decided to inform her mum about it as well as to seek assistance on how to approach the uncomfortable gift-giving situation. Unfortunately, the response she got was not what she expected. “My mum told me that it was nothing” Mister recounts; “that he is just a good man who wants to show his kind gesture”.
Fourteen year-old Mister knew for sure something wasn't right. She thought, however, that the man was trying to win her support for her cousin. Mister still had no idea that the supposed cousin would end up being her.
“Though I wasn't convinced, somehow I believed my mother. I know my mother knows so many people and I remember her telling me she made so many friends when she was young. I also thought maybe the man wanted to win my support for my cousin”.
Worst shock of all
Within that period, Mister recalls, her mum would visit her almost twice in a month. “The visits were just too frequent” she says; until finally the truth came out!
“I was shocked!” she says. “I can’t remember everything but all I recall is how my mum started telling me things like- the man is a good man and that I will not regret marrying the man….”
“I never loved the idea of getting married, worst of all to that man”, says Mister angrily. “I refused and told my mother that I do not want to get married but that I want to go to school.”
Mister explains: “I really wanted to continue with my education, and make her proud”.
“I tried to get my mum to understand. No matter, how I tried to explain my passion for education, my mum would not understand, she just kept reminding me of how I have to struggle to score a pass, and how schooling is for those who get good grades so it will be best if I get married. And if I want to continue my education, I can do that while in my husband’s home”.
All this was happening within the months of September – November 2013. And during that period, many schools had begun writing the second sequential test for the term exams. While some students were working hard to excel in their studies, Mister was waging war with her mum.
Fighting for her future and life.
“It was a big distraction to me”, Mister recalls, “I could not concentrate on my studies the way I had planned.”
"For the best"
“Finally, I accepted to marry after mum had threatened to disown me,” she recollects.
“Mum assured me that it was for the best as well as for my future and that I should understand her health situation; she will soon die, and she doesn't want me to suffer…
and that with this man, my future is secure and safe, he is a good man, he is going to take good care of me and my younger sister and so we will be fine…
I felt so sorry for my mum, knowing fully that her health was not improving. I didn't want her to go through much pain. So I accepted the proposal. Even though everyone was against it – but my mum never welcomed anyone’s opinion.
In January 2014, in the middle of the academic term, I was removed from school and taken to the capital city, Yaoundé, to meet my husband.
A few months after the wedding, he wanted me to get pregnant. And I made him understand that – the whole marriage is against my wish and if he wants me to give him kids, he better wait for 2025 because until then, I shall not be ready to give birth.
Every night, this man and I would fight, quarrel and argue. The entire neighbourhood knew us – because we would argue and shout at the top of our voices. There were days when he would hit me and let me spend the night outside.
There are times, he would insult me and say that I was not well trained to manage a house. That he did not want to have children because I was not responsible enough to be a wife.
When he said things like that I was happy because I knew that sooner or later he was going to send me packing – and that was what I wanted. Just four months after our wedding, April 2014, he asked me to leave his house after beating me several times. I called my mum and explained the situation. Mum was angry and decided to personally come pick me up.
I was happy to leave the house so that I could continue with my studies. Two weeks after, I was shocked to hear my mum saying that I have to return to my husband – that there is no marriage without a problem. And that the man and his family have apologized.
I felt offended and disappointed when I heard the news that I have to return back to that guy.
I didn't see myself returning, but at last I did.”
Freedom at last
While there, Mister decided to take her life into her own hands; as she recounts:
“I refused to do anything. I knew that nothing I did or said would liberate me – so, it’s better that I just sat, and see what life brings each day.”
Each day, Mister explains, “I woke up and just sat… There were days, I took my bath late in the evening. There are also those very bad days that I refused to speak to anyone… And because of that there are times that I was starved because I didn't wash plates, or clean the house.”
This continued for a couple of months; Mister explains:
* Name changed to protect identity, for security and safety purposes.
“It was not long before I was asked to pack and leave. I felt liberated”, she giggles; “Finally, I left!”
“Now I am back, to live with my mother, unmarried, and I do not ever dream of getting married in such a way again and to such a man – EVER!
My plan is go back to school. I also believe that my mother, too, has learned her lesson and will never support such an idea. I have huge dreams and I won’t allow anyone – no man – to obstruct those dreams.”
This article forms part of WFAC's documentary series that seeks to highlight and amplify the voices of Child Brides.
The bride was interviewed by Nancy Makeoh, WFAC's Community Outreach Manger and together we developed the story.
For more on WFAC #EndChildMarriage or Child, Early and Forced Marriage Campaign, check out the WFAC Facebook Page.
Know Her Story Series
Regina Zoneziwoh (Mbondgulo) is a global Citizen DAWNS Digest award winning humanitarian reporter and storyteller, working in Cameroon to interview and give voice to women's perspectives on the country's development.