Abiba Nibaradun was just three years old when she lost her mother. She was raised by a distant relative in the Upper West region of Ghana and eventually completed her first degree aged 26.
Something changed for Nibaradun when she began working in education and for NGOs.
She observed that in group settings women rarely spoke, even when decisions would impact them directly. But when she met them individually, these same women confided in her. They told her how they were forced to marry at a young age and of their experiences of intimate partner violence.
Nibaradun’s motivation was ignited by these stories.
For the past 10 years, Nibaradun has worked for international charity ActionAid and leads a team of 68 community-based action teams (COMBAT) across Ghana. These are made up of around 10 people of all genders who actively go out into their community and talk about girls’ rights to choose if, when and who they marry.
The law in Ghana prohibits marriage under the age of 18. And while the prevalence of child marriage has declined over the past three decades, one in five women currently aged 20-24 were married under-age.
What are some of the root causes of child marriage in Ghana?
The causes are many and dynamic, but a key factor [in many areas] is certainly poverty. With limited income, parents can find it difficult to care for multiple children and might see no logic in spending money to raise a girl if it means neglecting a boy.
In a way, a girl child is already considered somebody else’s family member; it is assumed she will grow up to marry a man. When this happens, she will carry away her parent’s care and investment, whereas a boy will remain with the family.
It is not like this in every family, but can be the view of some, particularly in rural areas with little access to education.
In a way, a girl child is already considered somebody else’s family member; it is assumed she will grow up to marry a man.
What are some of the possible consequences for women who are married as children?
In Ghana, a girl does not enter an underage marriage and expect to complete her education. It is more likely she will give birth to children while still very young herself. With the girl unable to earn, the family will likely struggle to raise a large family on a single income. As such, poverty lingers into the next generation and the cycle of child marriage will likely continue.
I also realized [through my work] that the women who are married at a very young age are more likely to suffer abuse than women who have married as adults.
While working for ActionAid, you have prevented more than 200 child marriages. How do you do it?
I am often visiting schools so I have regular contact with children. During these visits, I encourage children and young women to join our support groups. First, younger girls can join our Empowerment and Advocacy Platform or, when in high school, our Young Female Platform. Even after completing school, girls are not alone – they can join the Young Urban Women’s Movement.
I freely share my phone number with the girls in these groups. I say that they can confidently call me and share their problems. From time to time I will get a call and am alerted of girls who might marry at a young age. I try to encourage and motivate them by sharing details of training opportunities through which they can access funds to learn various skills. Armed with options, girls can choose further education over an early marriage. Some of them listen.
I do not work in isolation. We’ve established COMBAT teams in about 65 communities across Ghana’s Upper West Region. These regional squads try to stop girls getting married without breaking family ties.
If a girl has been abducted, she will likely be forced to live with the family of her potential husband. In such cases, the COMBAT team would send a letter calling for the girl to be returned to her own family within a fixed time frame. If the girl is not released within that window, one of the COMBAT team will follow up. The case is only reported to the police if all attempts to resolve it between the families have failed.
How did you feel the first time you successfully stopped a forced child marriage?
When I got back home, I felt so joyful, satisfied and content. I had been determined that this girl’s aspirations and dreams would not be cut short. I have great passion and love for the work I do, so when a girl reports to me that she could be married, I do everything to see to it that she is brought back to her family.
I don’t always go to her directly – I also work with the COMBAT squads or contact the relevant state institution. But when a rescue is successful and I meet the girl, I feel happy and charged. I am left even more motivated to help girls to stay in school rather than entering an early marriage.
When a rescue is successful and I meet the girl, I feel happy and charged.
If you imagine a better world for women and girls, what do you see?
I imagine this world to be free of violence and injustice. I have seen time and again that women are not valued, they are not respected. I want to see women and girls able to take decisions about their lives without interference or dominance from the opposite sex.
In Ghana, I want to encourage women to report cases of partner violence and I would like to see male community members better engage with these issues.
Fundamentally, regardless of whether a woman marries as a child or an adult, it should not be a barrier. Marriage should not prevent a woman from achieving the successes she yearns for in life. This is how I wish society would be for women and girls.