« Sometimes I think it would have been better if my mom never gave birth to me. Or it would have been better if I had been a boy.” The confession I heard today from a 17yr-old girl faced with an ultimatum from her father to get married by the end of the month.
Raised in the south, in the second largest city in Cameroun, Douala, Aminatou is a bright young girl who speaks fluent French and is better educated than most girls her age in Bogo despite quitting school early because “it isn’t very good for a Muslim girl to be too educated”. She went to trade school instead and learnt how to sew. Ever since she has been making a living for herself and even accepted to teach a group of young girls how to sew too. Sewing is an acceptable job for Muslim women because they can work at home and don’t have to leave the house. However, the classes for the young girls proved difficult to achieve when her father at first refused on the basis that it isn’t proper for a young woman to be leaving the house to work. The reasoning behind that being that she might get used to it than be disobedient and difficult to control when she gets married. (Muslim women aren’t allowed to leave the house at all in their first year of marriage. Talk about trust issues!)
It seems to be a widespread belief among both Christian and Muslim men that working women are both troublesome and querulous. I met one young man who blamed his mother for the fact that his parents always fought. He believed it was best to marry a young virgin (preferably someone you don’t know too well) because that way “you would be her first and she will always fear you”. I tried to explain to him that a healthy relationship was based on trust not fear, and that if he really wanted a happy and peaceful household he would love and respect his wife not terrorize and control her. Unfortunately, I found out about two months later that the young man had a baby so at the time we were talking he was a) already married, or b) found out he had knocked a girl up and had to get married in a hurry. He told me he was 21yrs but he didn’t look older than sixteen. It’s hard to tell here...
One of my colleagues had an experience where she asked a man how he could tell which women were prostitutes and he gave a description that closely resembled the Christian women who sell their goods in the market. (Muslim women are not allowed to sell or even buy goods in the market but will send unmarried younger sisters or daughters to do the work. Yet another reason why they aren’t in school.) While yesterday, in a girls workshop, we (myself and two other volunteers) were told that girls aren’t allowed to wear long tunics with pants (what is known as the Indian or Arab style) because “they would look like prostitutes”. The funny part is that is exactly what all three white women in the room were wearing. Luckily we were told that it was okay for us, but Bogo girls have to wear the traditional pagne skirts or dresses. Oddly enough, this isn’t a Muslim or Christian rule but rather a matter of tradition. The tunic which is known here as the Arab style is commonly worn in many Muslim countries as well as India. Some of the more modern, educated women of the elite will wear tunics including the Sous-prefet’s wife which leaves me to believe that forcing girls to wear only skirts is another “idée villageoise”.
I can see why Aminatou might wish to be a boy. Life here just isn’t easy for a girl. They have so few rights, yet so many obligations (the main ones being to bear children and cook). I feel a painful tightening in my chest and my stomach every time I witness another girl being taken away to be married off; every time I meet a woman who is ill or has an infection but her husband won’t give her any money to go to the hospital or buy medication; every time a girl is pulled out of school because she has to help her mother at home or go sell things in the market; every time a woman is prevented from doing something because her husband won’t allow it. It hurts and I feel so powerless to do anything about it. I spent an hour and a half this morning discussing Aminatou’s predicament and trying to give her advice. She’d asked me to help her, but she knows as well as I do, there is very little I can do other than be supportive. Any intervention from me would just make her father angry (which I don’t want to do because I actually like him and consider him a friend despite his draconian ways when it comes to his daughter. In all other subjects he is open minded, generous and kind, but holds very traditional beliefs when it comes to his daughter’s future. I have a hard time understanding the contradiction...) and he would mostly likely dismiss whatever I have to say on the basis that “my culture is different from theirs”. So what do I do? What does she do? How do I help a friend? I would like to say that I have the answer, but I just don’t.
Yesterday, we heard a testimony from one very active woman in the community who told her story to the group of young girls and how she was forced to marry at 18 but then found the courage to leave him at 20 because it wasn’t working out. She continued to study and even did a few years at University (though eye problems forced her to quit) and stayed single and working. She now runs the media centre at the post office, she is active in several organisations mostly in health, but also the young girls group which she founded. She is a strong, independent woman and a good role model for the girls. It gives me some hope for Aminatou that even if the marriage does go through, not all will be lost. I just hope that whatever happens she will find a way to be happy.