MAROUA, CAMEROON - In Cameroon, 82 couples have taken part in a mass wedding ceremony as part of efforts to better protect the legal rights of women. Only 10 percent of marriages in Cameroon are legalized, leaving wives with few rights. The mass wedding ceremony is part of activities to mark Friday’s International Women’s Day.
For the event, traditional Cameroonian dancers performed in the courtyard of the Maroua Town Council. There, they celebrated the official marriage of 82 couples, most of them Muslims.
Among the couples were 16-year-old Asta Ismaila and her 47-year-old husband.
Ismaila said she was forced to be the man’s third wife when she was barely 14 years old. After giving birth, she said, her husband did not take care of her or her baby.
Although the couple split last year, they agreed to legalize their marriage so Ismaila and their child would not be shunned by the community.
It also provides mother and child with important and rare legal protection.
Cameroon’s Institute of Statistics says only 10 percent of couples have legalized their marriages – relying instead on simple, traditional ceremonies.
If the husband dies, his family members often take the couple's property and send the woman away with nothing.
The Cameroon Association of Lawyers’ Hamadou Hamajarou says with a legal marriage, the state protects the wife’s property rights.
He said Cameroon's penal code punishes anyone who forces a widow out of her marital home with a prison term of three months to one year and a fine of $100 to $1,000. If the woman is pregnant or violence is used, the sentence can be from two to five years in prison.
In northern Cameroon’s polygamous Muslim communities, men often bring home an additional wife without consulting their current ones. Without a registered marriage, the wives have few legal options to challenge the man’s decisions.
Aissa Dumara, coordinator of the Association for the Fight Against Violence on Women and Girls, said women who defy their husband – legally or not -- are often abused or kicked out of the house.
She said only 35 of the 351 abused women who sought the group’s help in 2018 were legally married. Dumara said they were forced at very young ages into the homes of men who promised to marry them but instead they were battered, forced to do difficult domestic work, or simply dismissed.
The group arranged the mass wedding to educate women of the importance of legalizing their marriages.
It’s no small challenge in Cameroon’s remote villages.
Ismaila tried to convince her husband’s two other wives to legalize their marriages as well. But they said their families were against it because the husband and his family had yet to pay them money or property for the marriage – known as a bride price.
The cost for the wives having no legal protection could prove to be much higher.