A Cameroonian acquaintance of mine, Isabelle, told me some months ago that she would not go to vote: “You know, I don’t have childcare and any time and energy to go through the hassle of organising my electoral card. I don’t even have the money for the transport”.
Isabelle, now in her mid-30s, married her husband straight after she graduated from secondary school. After suffering a continual cycle of domestic violence, she left him only a few years into marriage. Leaving her husband was an outrageous act in the eyes of Isabelle’s family and cost her all support from her relatives.
Isabelle now sells home prepared food on the streets of Yaounde and struggles hard to keep her children in school. “I am exhausted. Every day is a battle and I don’t have anywhere to go for support”.
Cameroon has one of the highest attendance rates of girls in secondary education in West & Central Africa. Having had secondary education, Isabelle at least statistically had a much better chance to succeed in life than many other women in Africa - certainly better than Haoua, whose story I recently heard here in Niger.
When my organisation Plan met Haoua she was 15. Having been married a year ago she was just recovering from serious childbirth injuries. Haoua suffers from incontinence and fistula which are likely to impede her health for life. These kinds of health effects are common amongst young brides who are not physically mature enough for sex or childbirth. “Marriage isn't a happy thing. When they told me I was to be married, I wasn’t happy because I know it’s not good. I’d be happy to go to school. What I want to do is learn how to read,” she said to my colleagues.
When I moved from Cameroon to Niger a few months ago I was struck by the palpable differences between women’s lives and opportunities in both countries. Niger is the world’s poorest country and women are largely absent from public life; 76 percent of the country’s poorest girls aged 7 – 16 have never been to school. Women hold a mere 13 percent of seats in parliament. Cameroon, in contrast, has fairly realistic ambitions to become a middle-income state and women’s participation in political decision-making has made important improvements; their representation in the national assembly has doubled in last year’s legislative elections (the one Isabelle didn’t attend) to 31 percent.
Yet, despite these differences in educational and political opportunities between their countries, for both Haoua and Isabelle, marriage and motherhood have become major obstacles to better the course of their lives. For Haoua, her chances to live a healthy life and get a decent education have ended before her adulthood even begun; Isabelle’s ambitions to use the education she received and to exercise her citizenship rights have disappeared in the face of daily struggles to feed her children. Marriage and motherhood has become a staircase into poverty for her.
Haoua’s and Isabelle’s stories reveal the huge task African countries have to support their female population to reach equality and ensure women can fully enjoy their socio-economic and political rights. They illustrate the continuum of legal and social measures that are required to gain and sustain development efforts for women. Laws against child marriage and measures to enforce them are a foundation for this. In Niger, Plan’s own research revealed that 36 percent of girls younger than 15 are already married.
Education is the most powerful tool to support these laws and reduce risks of early marriage. Worldwide, girls with no education are three times more likely to marry before 18 than those with secondary or higher education. While both in Cameroon and Niger legal age of marriage for a girl is 15 (and 18 for a boy), the difference in female education levels resulted in increased socio-economic opportunities and greater gender balance in political leadership. More women in political decision-making positions are needed to further improving laws and social measures in place, including those for sexual and reproductive health.
Better policies and access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning, are indeed the third critical cornerstone in giving women are more equitable chance to succeed in life and to sustain the gains from better education opportunities. “I wish I hadn’t had so many children and so early”, Isabelle told me. “Then I could have continued in my first job as a French teacher.” And (she would have) probably gone to vote.
--Stefanie Conrad is Global Advisor, Citizenship and Governance for child rights organisation Plan International.