The following profile comes courtesy of Dicko Sulle, the interim head of English Language and Literature of English Expression at GSS Upkwa.
Meet Fatima Abdullahi, an orphan who never saw her real father. Her father was shot dead by thieves when she was just 2 years old. Fatima and her younger sister, Maryam Abdullahi lived with their maternal grandmother after their mother remarried another man. Fatima is currently in form five while her sister, Maryam is in form three in GSS Upkwa. Fatima is a fourth time recipient of the A2Empowerment scholarship and one of the brightest and focused on achieving her goals in life. She plans to becoming a nurse and is assiduous, punctual in class with strong interest in extra-curricular activities. Fatima is engaged and open-minded which allows her interact freely more than many others. This quality makes many to see her as role model who can trigger positive mentality change in the Aku community regarding girls’ education.
The Aku is a community with rigid traditional patterns that relegate women to the background. They believe the best place for women is the kitchen and girls are married off as early as twelve years. They believe that sending girls to school is exposing them to taboo behaviors like premarital sex and early pregnancy which families regard as abomination. To have a child out of wedlock is considered a public disgrace and the safest way to avoid it is marrying off girls early enough. Note that the Aku community number about 40,000 inhabitants and there are only two girls who have ever reached high school. Due to cultural prejudice, none of the two went any significant way in achieving their life goals, one of them ended up marrying a stark illiterate husband as a third wife while the other one is trying a living as a nurse with a private health unit.
You may be wondering why I began by associating Fatima’s story with her sister’s, Maryam. It is not out of mere coincidence. Both girls have been under stiff pressure to marry. Last year, their uncles attempted to marry Fatima off to his son. After strong resistance, Fatima and I rallied her maternal uncles to isolate the uncle and stop the marriage. After conceding defeat, this uncle never completely withdrew his bid. This time around, he has succeeded to gain Fatima’s paternal grandfather’s support to push the deal again and two of them are making considerable advances. Grandparents’ opinions are usually treated with much respect in the Aku community and Fatima’s marital life is now hanging in a balance. They have already succeeded to marry off Fatima’s younger sister Maryam who is only 13 and the spotlight is now entirely focused on Fatima.
Fatima is now only 17 and the Cameroon legal system requires in its section 356 (2), that anyone who forces a girl under 18 years old into marriage is liable to imprisonment of up to two years whatever the mitigating circumstances. Fatima is poised to defend her right to education and marry only at the appropriate time but her family pressure is already showing visible signs of psychological wear down. Her school attendance rate has dropped, she has been regularly sick and she fears that her end of course official examination in June 2018, will be negatively affected. Fatima’s story is not an isolated case of girls being married off against their will. But her story has already sparked hard conversations on the phenomenon because of her interest in attending school and asserting her voice regarding her marital life.
I am confident Fatima will win the battle and pave the way for many more girls to assert their voices. My role in Fatima’s story is not to entirely stand against a long term tradition of early marriages, but to give education preference in the lives of girls. Standing against this tradition will only antagonize me with the community and hinder my ability to continue talking about girls’ education. My view is to seek alternative ways how this phenomenon does not stop girls’ access to education by encouraging community members to accept married women can go to school. To speak about this with authority and provide a palpable example, I have sent my own wife to school from her marital home. Rashida, whose story started in a similar way like Fatima, is in form three in GHS Wum and my goal is to empower her to join her voice to mine in advocating girls’ education in the future.