17-year-old Esther* escaped from a gun attack in her village by Boko Haram that killed her family.
She left behind her mother and her father had disappeared without a trace during the insurgents’ attack
Vulnerable and alone she partnered with an older woman who offered to take her to a refugee camp in the Far North region of Cameroon.
Esther was so grateful and thought she had found safety at last when she met this mother figure. She even dared to dream that she could go back to school when they reached their destination.
Little did she know that the woman she had started calling “Mama Aisa” was scheming against her all along.
“She was so kind to me during the journey,” says Esther. “To me, she was my new mother sent from heaven.”
But Mama Aisa soon began to show her true colours. “She told me that in exchange for her protection and company I would have to start paying my way.”
“One evening, she sat me down next to her and told me she had arranged a husband for me,” says Esther.
He would pay ‘Mama Aisa’ a bride price and offer the two of them extra protection.
“I resisted but she beat me and threatened to kick me out of her tent. I knew no one else. She had become my only family”
After two months of torment at the hands of Mama Aisa, Esther reluctantly become a bride to a much older man. Her dreams of education were dashed. She was trapped and her future was now bleak and uncertain.
Refugee girls exposed to early and forced marriage
Thousands of girls like Esther living in refugee camps are exposed to the risk of early and forced marriage – very often to much older men.
Sometimes it is seen as a solution to a family’s financial difficulties as girls can be married in return for money but it has devastating effects on girls’ health and wellbeing and jeopardises their right to a proper education.
Child rights organisation Plan International has been working to ensure refugee and internally displaced children are protected from all forms of abuse in the refugee camps.
Plan International is working to identify cases of early marriage, like Esther’s in camps. Esther’s early marriage was dissolved after three months, with the help of the organisation. Arrangements are now being made for Esther to start a vocational training course.
As well as working with partners to end gender-based violence, including forced marriage, in the refugee camps, Plan International is also implementing programmes in the areas of education, nutrition and food security, health and water, sanitation and hygiene.
* Girl’s name has been changed to protect her identity