Growing up in the village of Baoliwol in northern Cameroon, she had seen plenty of girls get married young. Her 20-year-old sister had been married off early and already had three children. And Danedjo and her sister were far from alone; 73% of girls in northern Cameroon are married before the age of 18, according to the nonprofit Girls Not Brides.
But saying no meant standing up to her parents and her entire community. No girl had ever refused to get married in Baoliwol before.
Now 31, Hadidja is the founder and president of a center that helps women and girls fight for their rights. She shared her story with Refinery29 in New York before traveling to participate in the 2015 Girl Summit DC.
If I said no, all the parents would start to say that I had ruined the other girls who were after me.
"When I was a child, I was in school. And then, I started to think about what I could do with my life. I wanted to be a doctor or a nurse. I had gotten sick and the people that I saw in front of me at the hospital were doctors. That's when I said, 'I want this job.' When I got the grades to go, I thought I would start sixth grade in secondary school. I didn’t know what my parents had in mind, because I [thought I] was going along with my friends. But for my parents, when I passed fifth grade, I already was of marriageable age, so school was finished."
Did you see older girls facing marriage at 15? Were you afraid?
"I saw some getting married and I also saw that there were older girls at my school who surpassed me in age and they were still going to school. When they received a [proposal] of marriage, they would leave to get married. They didn’t have a choice. I have an older sister who got married very young. She didn’t finish school. She only did four years."
What were your parents’ reasons?
"That’s how the tradition — the custom — is. My big sister had left and there were three boys between her and me. By the time I had grown up and was going to school, my sister already had three children."
How did your parents tell you you would be getting married?
"They told me that I was already grown-up and somebody wanted to marry me. This was my chance. They didn’t ask me. When you are old enough, [my parents believed], 'We give you to somebody, we choose somebody.'
"So if I refused, it wouldn’t work. I had to obey my parents. If I said no, all the parents would start to say that I had ruined the other girls who were after me. If I said no, the other girls would begin to say no. That would be a problem for everybody. So I didn’t have the choice."
"I was not expecting it. I didn’t want it. I said, ‘But where will I go? Because this is my home. Who will I find there? Who will I stay with? My friends, everybody will abandon me.’ When you leave, you stay with your husband’s family, alone. You can’t go out, and your friends don’t visit because now you are different. You are different and your friends are no longer your friends. Now, you stay with the mother of your husband. It is she who takes you around. And so that’s what I was thinking about that night.
"I thought, 'Tomorrow, I have to start over…it will be along time before I come back to my parent’s home, to their neighborhood, and maybe it will be with a child.'"
How old was the man that you were going to be married to?
"He was almost 45."
Were you afraid to be with him alone?
"Of course, because it is him who speaks, you do not speak. You bring something, you sit, you are there, you do as he tells you."
What did you do next?
"When I shared this news with my friends, one of my friends told me I should go talk to a woman who works with the ALVF [Association to Combat Violence Against Women]. But I didn’t want to. I said, ‘No, that will put me in conflict with my parents…'
"Finally, I went with my friend to this woman and explained my situation to her...A lady from ALVF went to my house — they didn’t say that it was me who told them. They went to convince my father, and asked him, 'She goes to school? What classes is she taking? What is her average? Is she smart?' They asked question after question after question and my father said, 'Why are you asking me all these questions? She's not continuing [to study], she’s going to get married.'
"And they said, 'But how is a little girl like this going to get married? Is she prepared?' The ALVF convinced my father by saying that they would take responsibility for me. I would go to school and he would not need to buy things for me, he would not need to pay for my schooling, he would not need to spend money to pay for school. And with the [future] husband, ALVF said they would reimburse him."
I thought, 'Tomorrow, I have to start over...it will be a long time before I come back to my parents' home, to their neighborhood, and maybe it will be with a child.'
"The man had already paid a bride price to my father. He also paid for three suitcases for my mother, for my father, and also for me, filled with different goods and clothing. There was also soap for my mother, my father, all in the suitcases.
"When he brought the suitcases, we immediately shared the contents with my family — aunts, cousins, everybody. And so we had to reimburse the suitcases. We gave back the things. After that, he had to go look for another wife!"
How did your community react?
"Back then, it was a problem, because at the time — even for the parents — I was a bad example...One of the reasons we send girls to get married is to avoid pregnancy outside of marriage. Because when you go to school, you have friends who are boys and then you might go out with boys, and then you might get pregnant. So, that is shameful for them.
"But they didn't see that with me. And they didn’t see that I was spending time with bad company, going around with people who will, for example, drink or sleep out. They didn’t see that with me, either, so that was the trust that I earned from the parents in the village."
"I am very happy now, because the girls that we have introduced to APAD all have a desire to do something with their lives. They don’t say, 'We will get married and then it’s over.'
"...When I didn’t get married and I went to APAD, my older sister was against me. She said to me: 'You want to leave. It’s because you want to go, you don’t want to get married because you want freedom.' She wasn’t even 20 years old, but she said already that it was a bad example. 'Go get married,' she told me.
"And now, she has seven children and she wants to come to APAD to learn how to write. She comes to APAD to take literacy classes. Maybe next year, she will get her certification of study from primary school and her children will go to school.
"Now, child marriage is no longer a big problem in Baoliwol. The girls are open, they are aware. Even the housewives come to ask for advice at APAD...My father even comes to the office! He doesn’t have an appointment, but he comes and asks me, 'What are you doing today?' He says to me, 'You are a great woman. You are very wise.'"
It is him who speaks. You do not speak. You bring something, you sit, you are there, you do as he tells you.
"If you make the choice, you love it. You love your choice and you are at ease...You want a husband who understands you, who lets you go where you want, who will like what you are doing. If I had been obliged to my father in order to get married, my husband would have said to me, ‘Don’t go there, don’t go out, don’t do this, don’t do that.’ When you have chosen your husband, he will appreciate you and help you accomplish what you want. So it’s very important to choose for oneself."
What is your message to young women around the world?
"At home, if you are a girl, you come last...As a girl, if someone says, 'Take this,' sometimes, you will say, 'No, it is my brother who will take it.' But if we say, 'Take this,' when you are a girl, my advice is to stand up and try to take it. You have to be very brave."
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.