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.”