What It's Like To Be A Child Bride Married To An Abusive Husband

Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
On her wedding day in the Cameroonian village of Baoliwol, Mairamou refused to dress up. She had never met the man she was about to wed, and her parents had told her nothing about sex. She was afraid it would be violent.

"They forced me to marry him; I didn't want to. If I had consented, I would, of course, have put on makeup; I would, of course, have been very happy — but because it wasn’t like that, I just went," she remembered.

She was only 15 when she was married off to her father's friend, a man nearly three times her age. Like many child brides around the world, that meant school was over for Mairamou, who goes only by her first name.

"When I was studying, I dreamed of becoming a woman mayor, and of having lots of diplomas. Going to university, that was my dream," she told Refinery29. "I finished fifth grade, but then my father said that that was the age to get married."

After the wedding, Mairamou was taken to live with her husband, far away from friends and family. As the youngest of the man's three wives, she was expected to do the majority of the housework.

"I prepared food. I washed dishes, I swept the house. All of it. I also washed my husband’s clothes. It was that way because I didn’t have any children. I was exhausted," she said.

Mairamou said her husband beat her every day that she refused to have sex with him.

"I was scared of him. Because if he wanted to have sex with me, violently — I became afraid," she said. "I calculated the time of prayers. He left [for the mosque] and I ran."

With only the clothes on her back, she escaped to a friend's house and stayed there for the night. But she realized she would need to find other allies if she was going to successfully leave her husband for good.

Ahead, 27-year-old Mairamou shares with Refinery29 her story of courage and resilience. She spoke with us in New York before traveling to speak out against child marriage around the world as part of the 2015 Girl Summit DC.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
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Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
After escaping from your husband's home, what happened next?

"At that time, the Association to Combat Violence Against Women [known by its acronym in French, ALVF] was doing educational sessions. They wanted to summon my father to their offices. But he refused to come.

"One day, I decided to go home when my father wasn’t there. My mother was there. I explained to my mom that when my husband wanted to have sex with me, he would beat me, and I was afraid, I didn’t like it.

"My mom explained that to my father. And when my father heard this, he thought about it. And I said to him, 'If he continues like this, I will run away.' I would go away, anywhere — he would not see me again.

"So I told him to go the ALVF. And he participated in the sessions, and he heard about the consequences of child marriage. And he let me come home. It was about a year later."
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Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
But after she successfully ended her marriage, Mairamou felt she had to do something to help other girls like her.

Nearly three quarters of girls are married before the age of 18 in northern Cameroon, according to the nonprofit Girls Not Brides. Worldwide, more than 30% of women alive today were married before the age of 18. The group estimates that if nothing is done to change policies around the world, an additional 1.2 billion girls will be married off by 2050.

In addition to missing out on education, girls who are married off too young face a host of other problems. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death in girls age 15 to 19 in low- and middle-income countries, according to Girls Not Brides.
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Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
How did you become involved in helping other girls like you?
"After those months I had survived, we created neighborhood support groups. Since then, I’ve been part of the Association for the Promotion of Autonomy and Rights of Young Girls and Women [APAD], and now I have become independent.

"Now I am free. I do my sewing, I train other girls. I feel relaxed. Even my father sees that now I am at ease. He understands now."
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Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
APAD was founded by Danedjo Hadidja, another woman who refused to be a child bride. So far, the organization has trained 150 survivors of childhood and forced marriages to speak out and raise awareness in their communities. The group also holds classes on sexual and reproductive health, as well as women's rights, and provides literacy and vocational training to girls and young women. Now, child marriages are rare in Baoliwol.

With APAD’s help, Mairamou learned how to sew and embroider, and is now financially independent. She sells the clothing she makes in town, and leads sewing workshops for other girls.
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Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
Twelve years later, what is your life like now?
"Now I feel at ease. I can give guidance to my friends, to my classmates. I can talk everywhere, even in front of authorities. I feel very at ease; I don’t have any problems. I can choose my husband if I want, nobody will force me. I can marry now; I am no longer a minor. I can give advice to my sisters, my friends; I can give advice to parents not to send their daughters into marriage."
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Photo: Courtesy of International Women's Health Coalition.
What is your advice for girls around the world?
"I want to tell them not to accept going into marriage quickly. Don’t accept it if you are forced into marriage. Go to school, do your studies, do an activity — like job training — but do not go into marriage and stay there without working."
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