Tender Brides of the North: The girls wasting away

On a dry, windswept compound in the Upper East Region village of Naaga, 14-year-old Amina (not her real name) carries a tiny baby within her arms. Amina is a wife, a mother and a victim of child marriage.

In her village, it’s a norm for a man, no matter how old he is, to marry a teenager. Many girls at Naaga are forced to drop out of school when their parents marry them off to men old enough to be their fathers.

The worrying reality is that some of these girls become brides after being “kidnapped” by their would-be husbands who offer cola-nut to express their interest in tiny little girls.

“I was going to fetch water when a certain man abducted me and said he had married me,” Amina told JoyNews’ Upper East Region correspondent, Albert Sore, for the Hotline documentary Tender Brides of the North.

Girls on the brink

According to the UNICEF Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), the Upper East Region has a child marriage prevalence of 50%, the highest in the country.

In Tender Brides of the North, Albert Sore, spoke to the headmaster of the Naaga Junior High School who says up to four children become pregnant each year the students are due for the Basic Education Certificate Education (BECE).

The consequence of this situation is that many girls will not be able to make important decisions about their sexuality and their future; their dreams are snuffed out with impunity.

It’s also true that some of these young mothers develop fistula, an abnormality that threatens their reproductive system, pride and confidence.

Tradition and poverty

“Child marriage in Ghana is deeply rooted in tradition and discriminatory gender norms,” that’s according to women rights agency WiLDAF Ghana.

“WiLDAF Ghana found that parents’ decision to marry off their daughter was often driven by their concern with female sexuality and family honour, in particular the fear that their daughter may become pregnant out of wedlock,” a statement on the website of the agency said.

At Naaga, poverty is a major driver of child marriages. Nchobilla Ayamga, a father whose 15-year-old daughter run out with a man who later claimed to be her husband, says she would have been able to keep her daughter at home if he had enough money to take care of her.

“One time, I saw my daughter with one of her friends making calls on mobile a phone. So I scolded them and confiscated the phone because apparently, that man gave her the phone so they could be communicating. I am her father and I was not even using a phone myself. So how could she have afforded one? So you see? The men use gifts to trick these girls and marry them. For me, I would say my daughter was snatched from me because obviously they were using money to influence her so no matter what did or said to her, she never listened to me,” he narrated, tearing.

No punishment, no shelter

Ghana’s laws frown on marriage of girls younger than 18. But if the wheels of justice are grinding too slowly or the enforcers of the law just don’t care, there’s very little to expect when it comes to dealing with the problem.

It’s a big hurdle, especially, in the villages where the police would want to be paid to travel to. Many of these girls are suffering in silence in the nooks and crannies of the country.

Governments over the years have spoken about the problem, but mostly in the comfort of big auditoriums where hot tea and coffee is served.

At these conferences, the problem is refined and redefined, echoed and re-echoed and the final communiqué given extensive coverage by the press, which is equally complicit in the ills of scratching the surface of a crisis and letting it fester.

Girls are being denied the right to their own future in poor neighbourhoods in Ghana and no one seems to care.

For now, a few non-governmental organisations are working to liberate these girls. But after the rescue, there’s no shelter for them. WiLDAF believes there must be facilities to shelter the girls rescued from this quagmire of lawlessness and backward culture.