CSW 58: Forced Marriage in Africa

on March 18, 2014

“Les petit femmes dans ma pays veulent un petit prince.”

“The little girls in my country want a little prince.”

Her name is Binta Bah Binette and her voice is cracking. On the 11th floor of the CCUN Building, in a hot room only big enough to hold 35 chairs, surrounded by the 71 people who are sitting on the floor, slumping against the wall or sitting on the windowsills, Binta is speaking as part of a panel on forced marriage in Africa. She is in her mid-sixties. A stately woman, she dresses in the tradition Guinea style, with a simple dress and matching head wrap. To all appearances she would be quiet and reserved in speech. But on the subject of forced marriage, her frame seems to grow by a foot and her voice carries out into the hallway.

In the Francophone countries of Africa, there is a grisly practice whereby girls as young as 9 are sold into marriages with men 40, 50, or 60 years their senior. “Sounds more like sex-trafficking,” said a friend of mine halfway through. His assessment was correct. While I had been skeptical of the event as I rode the elevator (any mention of ‘marriage’ at the UN is usually in derision), my fears were unfounded.

“We have to let the girls choose the men they want as husbands,” said Ambassador Sire Conde. Marriage, real marriage, between “un homme et une femme” (a man and a woman) was frequently cited as a dream for these girls. But the husbands of forced brides are not men. Isabella Kabo spoke of girls she knew who had been taken and locked in cells, with only a slot in the door for food. They merited this punishment because they had tried to run away from being raped on a nightly basis. Another girl had her fingers and feet cut off so she couldn’t leave her “husband’s” bedroom.

The three women on the panel were not statisticians. They weren’t social scientists. When they spoke of forced marriage, they spoke of girls they knew and had seen with their own eyes. Binta took the time to explain what happens when a 9-year-old girl gives birth. Because she is simply too small, her skin rips so severely, that blood, urine and feces all spill out, often until the girl dies from the loss of them. This panel was here in New York to simply say what they had seen. They aren’t professional experts on forced marriage; they are the neighbors and friends of the victims.

When asked about the causes of child marriage, Binta and Isabella were unmistakably clear: poverty. If a family doesn’t have enough money, they will sell their daughter as a bride to the highest bidder. The family doesn’t even need to seek out the marriage market. As often as not, a man will go from family to family bidding on the girls of each. There was in attendance a woman from Gambia who remembers when her father refused a bidder when she was 10. Sadly, not all fathers are so virtuous. If a man wants a young bride and has the money, it isn’t a matter of if but when.

Ambassador Conde, who I should add attended even though she was running a fever (such was her passion), spoke with me at a reception in Harlem after the panel. “Gold. I could pick up gold from the ground. (She stoops and picks up an imaginary piece and shows it to me.) My country of Guinea is so rich. Diamonds, gold, metals, oil…. But that money does not get to the people. So they sell their daughters to buy food.” If it seems unlikely that mere poverty would lead to this practice, recall that there is in these African Nations a long-held tradition of young brides with this brutally coercive underbelly. Fortunately, the women and girls of Africa aren’t being passive in their resistance.

A woman in the audience had come to the United Nations from Cameroon. In that country, girls will form themselves into groups and frequently meet to either talk, work or go to school. If a girl stops meeting with the group, the other girls will go to her house and ask her parents where she is. Almost always, she has been married off for one reason or another. If the parents will not bring her back home, the group of girls will go talk to their teacher and bring the teacher to talk to the parents. Surprisingly, this often works and the girl in question is returned. In Gambia, the mothers of girls have organized in a similar fashion.

I asked Ambassador Conde about the Churches in Africa and if they are helping the victims of forced marriage. In the days of Saint Augustine, the Church was much more popular among women than men because of the teachings on marriage and sexuality. African society in the fifth century had a developed culture of concubinage, which did not have the love or security of a Christian Marriage but still demanded sex from the woman. Augustine himself had a son with his first concubine, but dismissed her because she would have ruined his prospects for marriage. The Church eventually turned this young man around, but according to Ambassador Conde, Churches are either silent or ineffective at helping the victims of child marriage.

“They don’t have the money,” she pined. Some Churches here and there will take in girls and help them be rehabilitated. But the medical care which is needed, including emergency blood and basic antibiotics, is impossible to buy. Even baby formula has been made illegal in certain countries because of a rash of infant deaths caused by spoiled formula. In Nigeria for example, many of the families affected don’t have refrigeration. Their formula spoiled and poisoned their babies as a result. When I asked the panel which organization was making a difference, Isabella didn’t hesitate; “Medecins Sans Frontieres.” (Doctors Without Borders.)

Forced marriage is brutal. As disheartening it was to hear these women speak about what they had seen and how hard it was to fight back. I was heartened by their principled resolve to not accept the easy solutions which are so often proposed for third world problems. “Without women…there…is…no…LIFE!” concluded Ambassador Conde at the end of the presentation. Even as Binta described the suffering and agony of a 9-year-old girl giving birth, knowing she will probably die shortly thereafter; abortion was never mentioned. I asked Ambassador Conde directly about abortion as a solution. She blankly stared at me. I might as well have asked if we shouldn’t just shoot the girls; so foreign and abhorrent was the thought of abortion. I asked each member of the panel, point blank; “It seems to me that you are looking for a way to save these girls and save their babies, to give them good husbands who will love them and cherish them.” The response was universal: “Yes, exactly.”

Beyond their concern for the babies of forced brides, it was unmistakable that these women see the nuclear family as being essential for the empowerment of women. “You know, we don’t have to be in conflict,” said Ambassador Conde to the men in the room. “The husband may be the head of the house, but serving his wife is part of that. Just so, we women will do what we do best as women. We are not the same. We can raise and talk to the children, but we need men to love us and what we lack are real men.

Sadly, these heroic women also lack publicity. Here at the UN, there are side events and parallel events. Side events are held inside the UN. They have press, cameras, government ministers, negotiators and interns live-tweeting the proceedings. Parallel events are held across the street, in smelly rooms like that one on the 11th floor. There is no tech support, no government ministers and certainly no negotiators.

Earlier in the day, I had attended “Voices of African Women & Girls in the Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals.” This event was held in the UN, with the head of the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) in attendance. At that event, flawlessly well-dressed African girls stood up and asked questions about “shedding African heritage” and “pursuing further gender equality.” The aforementioned head of UNFPA took time in the closing minutes to talk about “diverse forms of family” and the importance of spreading diversity in African culture.

Binta, of the Forced Marriage panel, was clear in her speech that forced marriage is not universal to Africa but limited mostly to the Francophone countries. She noted especially that South Africa was as distant as they could be from the problem. South Africa was widely represented at the “Voices of African Women” event. No one in that meeting even mentioned forced marriage as a problem.

At the Forced Marriage panel I leaned over to a woman sitting next to me and shared this concern. “Actually, my NGO (World YWCA) helped sponsor that event,” she replied.

“Well, why weren’t these women (I point to Binta, Isabella and Ambassador Conde) in that room, on that earlier panel?”

“Well, the UNFPA has as its number one priority this issue of forced marriage,” she insisted.

“Then why wasn’t it mentioned at the ‘Voices of African Women’?”

“I can’t say for sure that it wasn’t. I arrived to that event late, you see.”

The women I have written about; Binta, Isabella and Ambassador Conde, were begging to be noticed. They need prayers from those who are too far away to offer material support. They need help with organizing if you are close enough to offer it. UNFPA, in their earlier event, spoke a lot about grand schemes for empowering women on the continent of Africa, while the solutions that actually worked in Cameroon and Gambia had grown from the ground up. Women who love marriage, who love their children and who love the victims, are now combating the problem of forced marriage. Their resolve, their solutions and their principles ought to have had a better hearing. They are Africans setting the agenda for healing their own people. Why weren’t they given a chance to talk to negotiators and the press? The woman from UNFPA offered this chilling response:

“That’s the way the UN works…at least they had a place to talk.”

(to learn more visit AWGG.org)

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