My name is Folani. At the age of 16, I was forced to marry the man who raped me so that I wouldn’t bring shame on my family. He wanted to marry me but after I rejected him, he raped me. I told my my mother what he had done to me and she insisted that if he still wanted to marry me that I should consent. “No other man is going to want you,” she told me. “Be grateful if Mr. Adebayo still does.”
“But, Mama, he raped me.”
“And whose fault is that?”
I couldn’t believe how unfeeling and uncaring she was. I wished my father were still alive. He would have had Mr. Adebayo arrested and charged. I wished I had older brothers who would make Mr. Adebayo pay for what he did to me. I wouldn’t want them to kill him, of course. There are other ways to make a person pay for what they have done without taking their life.
I got no sympathy from my mother or my step-father and when Mr. Adebayo asked their permission to marry me, they consented. I know he wanted to marry me because he wanted to avoid punishment and prosecution. He was a government official and he had his “reputation” to think about. I had no choice but to go along with this. I had brought my family into disrepute and the only way to preserve my family name and avoid a life of sexual shame was to marry the man who raped me. This was the only way to prevent the social stigma of pre-marital sex.
The night before the wedding, I cried bitterly. I didn’t want to marry this man. I didn’t want to stop going to school. I had dreams of becoming a doctor but now those dreams were squashed. I lay in my bed curled up, wishing I could die. Death would be better than the future.
I married Mr. Adebayo and we lived in his big house on the hill. He was abusive to me, demanding his rights as my husband. He struck me when he tried to touch me and I pulled away. Night after night, I was raped. I became pregnant but I miscarried because of repeated domestic violence. Just when I didn’t think I could take any more of the physical and sexual abuse, my husband suddenly died. I could have run away and left him there in the floor but I called the police.
It turned out that he died from cardiac arrest. After the funeral, his sister and mother threw me out of the house. I didn’t return home to my mother and step-father. I went to my paternal grandmother who let me stay with her. When I told her all that had happened to me, she cried and prayed over me.
While I stayed with her, she read the Bible to me and told me about God and Jesus. I listened. I missed going to school but my grandmother couldn’t afford to send me. One night, I got down on my knees and asked God to help me. I couldn’t give up my dream of becoming a doctor one day. The next day, someone from Camfed came to my grandmother’s house. They had heard about my situation through its network of former students who had been supported through their education program. The charity offered to pay my school fees, and provides books, uniforms and sanitary protection. As my grandmother and I listened, I knew that God had answered my prayers. Thanks for Camfed has enabled more than two million girls like me to go to school has made my dream of becoming a doctor a reality.
After I graduated from school, I went on to university. I chose to live on campus but visited my grandmother every weekend. I thank her for telling me about God and I thank God for coming through for me. I wish I had run away from home and gone to live with my grandmother instead of marrying Mr. Adebayo but I was afraid that I would bring shame on her.
When I told her this, she reached for my hand and gently squeezed it. “You wouldn’t have brought any shame to me, Folani child. What happened to you wasn’t your fault. A wicked and evil man violated you and to avoid what was due him, he, your mother and step-father forced you to marry him. You’re free of him now that he’s dead and you are free to live the life God has planned for you. Now you can become a doctor–the first in your community and family. Your father would be very proud of you.”
With tears in my eyes, I hugged her tightly. “Kutenda, Ambuya.”
Folani’s story is fiction but there are true stories of girls who have been forced into marriages because of poverty, economic hardships, difficult circumstances and protection from sexual violence. Advocates for rape-marriage laws argue that they shield the victim and her family from the shame of rape. This isn’t true. This law benefits the rapist and the girl’s family. The girl has no say in the matter and is forced to marry the man who violated her. She is forced to drop out of school and forsake her future which only education could make possible and be in a marriage which more often than not is abusive.
I urge you to help Camfed which is changing the lives of girls through education; Girls Not Brides, a global partnership of more than 1300 civil society organisations committed to ending child marriage and enabling girls to fulfil their potential; Girl UP which believes that Girls are powerful. Girls have limitless potential. Girls can change the world. And yet in certain places around the world, girls continue to lack access to opportunities; CARE which is working towards gender equality, women’s empowerment, champions among men and boys, and an end to violence against women and Forward, the African women-led organisation working to end violence against women and girls.
Marriage is a choice not something to be coerced into. Education not marriage should be a girl’s priority. Marriage is between an adult man and woman not between an adult and a child. And girls who are raped should be protected by the law and their families and not forced to marry their rapists to save him persecution and jail time or to safe the family face. Rape is a crime and should be treated as such.
Take action to help girls like Gloria, who was forced into marriage at 12 and a widow twice by the time she was 17, to have an education and a future. Help them to fulfill their dreams.