By SINEAD BLESSING
Two years ago Lamana made a decision.
One morning, as dawn was breaking, she gathered her things, walked out the front door and left her husband. Her body was wounded with bruises and cuts from a beating she had received the previous night. Her husband had threatened her with a knife and she feared for her life. This situation wasn’t uncommon in her marriage – she was often beaten and raped for refusing sex or simply leaving the house – but her decision to leave was. She walked to her parents’ house and when they opened the door she demanded to come home.
She was 15 years old.
Lamana is one of an estimated ten million girls worldwide who will marry each year before they are 18. Some as young as eight years old. These girls are not physically or emotionally ready to become wives and mothers and face risks such as complications during childbirth, contracting HIV/AIDS and, as in Lamana’s case, are at risk of violence, abuse and exploitation. Often these girls are forced into marriages against their will, with men who are much older than they are, and who they often don’t know.
When I recently travelled to Cameroon and met Lamana, the first thing that struck me was her physical appearance. Tall and gentle, with long ballerina-like limbs and large almond eyes, she is the type of girl you expect to see on a runway in Paris. Yet it’s her inner strength and bravery in telling her story that held me in anticipation for each of her softly spoken words.
Lamana’s world is one that is very hard for those of us living outside its context to comprehend. In her community, a deprived area of Cameroon’s capital city Yaoundé, females are seen as second-class citizens and exist only to marry and bear children. Only 42% of school-aged children are effectively attending school and most parents are illiterate and attach very little importance to girls’ education.
When Lamana arrived home to her parents that fateful morning she had to fight to be allowed to stay. “My father and brothers were trying to put pressure on me to go back because it was looking like a disgrace for my family”, she told me.
“But I refused and stood my ground – I would not go back to the marriage because it was dangerous.”
After spending the week speaking with Lamana’s father, and other men in the community, I came to realise that the majority of them didn’t think what they were doing was wrong – they were simply doing things the way they had always been done.
Within most of the families in this community, the man is at the top, and women are nothing more than their subordinates. Gender equality is not something they understand or accept.
Yet it is against this backdrop that things are starting to change. I got to visit a new project called Girl Child Education, which is funded through the organisation I work for, Plan International. It is through this program that Lamana and thousands of girls like her are discovering the importance of education and learning that they have rights – equal to their brothers.
In addition, Lamana has also been given the opportunity to attend college, where she is not only completely a Computer Science degree but gaining confidence at the same time.
Lamana’s journey does not end with her. After seeing his daughter’s progress, Lamana’s father, who was responsible for arranging her marriage two years earlier, has changed his attitudes – not just toward her but her younger sister.
“My father is always reminding us … don’t think about marriage, think about going to school and about your education.
“My father’s dream is now for his daughters to finish school and get jobs.”
Two years ago Lamana made a decision that changed her life forever. She has shown that with the right opportunities younger generations can play a large part in the development of their communities. Hers is one story but the message is universal – give a girl access to an equal education and you not only empower her, but her family and her community.
Above all else, it’s her human right.
Following an extensive campaign led by Plan, the United Nations has declared today – OCTOBER 11 – the first ever ‘International Day of the Girl’. To celebrate, Plan is asking Australia to raise their hands for girls. Go to Facebook to raise your hands for girls just like Lamana.
Sinead Blessing has one of those jobs that many dream of. She is the Content Editor at Plan International Australia and gets to travel to places like South-East Asia and Africa to meet with, and record, the stories of children and families who are benefiting from Plan’s programs. Sinead wrote this piece for Plan’s Because I Am A Girl campaign which you can find out more about by clicking here.