One Marriage at a Time: The Forgotten Refugee Crisis in Cameroon

09/05/2016 11:33 | Updated 09 May 2016

In a small village close to the North Cameroonian border with the Central African Republic, a crisis has been going on for over a decade. It is rarely talked about, it doesn't make the global news headlines and it is largely forgotten - but every day it is destroying lives, shattering futures and preying on some of the most vulnerable within the community.

Since I began working as a Gender-Based Violence (GBV) Manager with International Medical Corps in the area I have seen girls as young as 12 entering into marriage without fully understanding what is happening, women with no access to education selling themselves on the street in hope of raising some money for the future, wives prohibited by their husbands from leaving their house to even go to the market and rape survivors refusing psychosocial counselling out of fear for retribution.

Here being the victim of rape and domestic violence still remains taboo.

Today Cameroon hosts more than 200,000 refugees from CAR and other neighbouring countries, the vast majority of which are women and children. The large influx of refugees has put immense pressures on existing health services and secondary needs such as education are often forgotten.

International Medical Corps, with support from the START network, DFID and UNHCR has been working to fill these gaps and provide healthcare and support to CAR refugees, as well as the vulnerable host communities in the North, East and Adamawa regions of Cameroon.

We have accomplished a lot, but the challenges persist.

I remember one story that has stuck with me from back when I was a social worker in Cameroon's Adamawa region. A young girl who was living in a refugee camp came to the counselling room and asked for our help. She was only 14 years old and despite her young age was getting ready to get married.

Immediately needing to know her story I asked more and more questions, finding out that her uncle had agreed to give her away for 15,000 francs (about £18) and two bags of sugar.

The young girl protested that she didn't want to get married - she wanted to go to school and get an education. She also explained to us that her mother as a woman had no power over the uncle, and so had no say in the fate of her own daughter.

Early and forced marriage is a common issue here and one of the biggest challenges we face. In this part of Cameroon a girl is often considered a woman once her period starts - tradition dictates that after three cycles she must leave the parental home, regardless of whether she is 16 or only 12.

For these girls reaching womanhood means losing their free will - they lose their ability to dream for their future, any element of choice taken from them and given to a husband. They lose their right to an education.

International Medical Corps works closely with the community to encourage families to allow their young daughters to stay in school, but as gender-based violence remains a taboo subject in the community a lot remains to be done.

Yet for me, each time we manage to help a young girl facing these pressures makes the effort worthwhile.

When I learned about the proposed future facing this 14 year old girl I knew I had to intervene. Together we sat down and discussed the situation with her family. Eventually we convinced them to return the dowry and the marriage was cancelled.

The young girl left the refugee camp to live with a relative in a different town in Cameroon, from where she was able to go back to school and resume her education.

This is what keeps me going.

I came here because I wanted to help people and while the challenges remain considerable, I am willing to keep fighting. For every person we help - for every life we save - I am reminded of what we can do.

I want to tell their stories in the hope that others will come forward, knowing that we can help them.

Their stories deserve to be talked about - and they deserve to be heard. They deserve to know that we have not forgotten.