A forced ‘child marriage’ threatened seventeen-year old Ghanaian Felicia Anongo’s pursuit of education. Or did it?

When a couple of teenage girls reported a case of forced ‘child marriage’ they had come across, I put my other work on hold and took off to Nimpu village, eight hours by car from Accra, to see if something could be done to rescue 17-year old Felicia Anongo. But the story I found was different. It made me wonder why, amid the worldwide focus on the plight of the child in ‘forced marriage’, so little attention is often given to the causes and reasons behind the act?

Mr Assa Anongo is actually a very nice man

Mr Assa Anongo, a yam and maize farmer and cattle owner in Nimpu, in the Brong Ahafo region in central Ghana, is not a bad man, nor is he a traditionalist. He is actually very nice, I find to my surprise, when I visit him in the village where is working his land. Even more surprisingly, he seems to be all for educating his five children –including his only girl.

A grandfather from Bolga

I have come to Nimpu to confront him with the claims made by his daughter Felicia that he is forcing her to marry an old man from Bolga, even further north, in the border area close to Burkina Faso. The young girl, small for her age, with chocolaty-brown skin and short hair, had told me so herself, when I had visited her recently in the capital of the region, Jema, -two hours away from the village-, where her school is. She had said that pursuing her education was all she wanted to do and that her dream was to become a nurse. But, she had told me, her father had been pushing her for years, ever since she was a mere twelve years old, to marry that man who was old enough to be her grandfather.

All she wanted was to pursue her education, she said

“It was in 2010 when my father first invited me to come with him to the northern region. I said I will not follow him because I knew he wanted to give me out for marriage. A short while later, that old man from Bolga came to our town and my father told him that I refused to marry him. My father then told me that if I won’t go on with the marriage, then I cannot continue with my school.” That is the story I was told by Felicia Anongo.

But Mr Assa Anongo tells me a different story. He would gladly keep Felicia in school, he says. It is all he ever wanted. Though he himself did not have the opportunity to be educated, he has, he says, always worked hard on his farm in order to raise enough money to provide for the needs of his children in school.

At least the working hard part is very true. Other villagers confirm that Mr Assa, slim and short like his daughter, can always be seen on the land, working, from dawn to dusk.

Boys

The problem, Mr Assa says, is that Felicia doesn’t even attend her school. “She is never there. She just hangs out with boys.” Sounding close to desperation, he explains to me that marrying her off has been the only solution he has been able to think of to protect Felicia from the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.

Truth be told, in the Brong Ahafo region, there is very little other entertainment for teenagers than to hang out with one another. But the boys and sex issue worries the father a great deal. “She flirts too much with men. She’ll bring disgrace to the family as well as many costs,” he explains. “Her behaviour may lead to pregnancy and STDs. To avoid that, I rather send her to the north so that she marries there. Then at least my family will see that I tried to send her to school but that it was her decision to drop out.”

There is very little other entertainment in the Brong Ahafo region

If she could only stay in the (boarding) school then he can provide for her, he continues. “If she would just focus on her education, I can even give her twenty Cedis every week.” In the rural areas, where people live on staples like yam, tomatoes and green leafy vegetables, twenty Ghanaian Cedis is a lot of money. With one Cedi, one can buy a loaf of bread or a bottle of drinking yoghurt, or a yam, a kilogram of tomatoes, a packet of tea. You can start a small fresh produce business with twenty Cedis.

On my return, later, I will carry out a brief check on the father’s story back at the school in Jema It confirms what the old man said. Both Madam Helen, the headmistress and her class teacher, Emick Doninya, tell me that Felicia is known to be truant and that her story of ‘fighting for her education’ doesn’t hold water. “The father sometimes comes to the school to look for Felicia,” says Doninya. “And then she is nowhere to be found.”

Could the stories I have heard before been so wrong?

An NGO for child rights

It had all started with the NGO World Vision’s ‘Child Rights Club’ project. Or rather, it had started with an assignment for me to research the projects’ impact. ‘World Vision’ runs five such ‘Child Rights Clubs’ in Jema. The objective is to get youngsters, particularly girls, to discuss their rights and stand up for them. Child marriage is among the top subjects to be discussed.

When I had interviewed the members of one such club in Jema, the girls had brought it up. Asked if they had come across any violation of child’s rights, one of the girls had responded that a friend’s father was forcing her into marriage. The girl added that she had informed the others in the club as well as the club’s matron about the case. “And then the matron led us to visit the girls’ father so that we could convince him to let her go back to school.” From what they are saying, I gather that the conversation with Mr Assa then had not been very successful. (He would explain to me later that he had been ‘very angry with Felicia’ at that point.)

The club had also advised the girls to inform the Social Welfare officer, and also the officials of World Vision. They told me they were aware that a World Vision official had gone to the village to talk to the father, but don’t know if the Social Welfare officer did anything. They had then introduced me to Felicia Anongo herself and I had noted down her grievances.

It was after that that I had resolved to visit Nimpu to try and talk to the father myself.

A well-known case

Nimpu is is a typical poor village where people battle to survive. There is no potable water here, nor a clinic or a school. Even actual houses are few. Inhabitants depend on the river for everything.

Everybody in Nimpu has an opinion about Felicia

The case of Felicia Anongo has become well-known in this village. It is clearly not every day that one gets officials from Jema visiting here. So everybody has an opinion: some are fully behind Mr Assa Anongo, saying that marriage is the only way to discipline such an unruly child. Others think that the father should try different, more diplomatic ways, to try and convince the child to stay in school. Yet others suggest counselling.

After meeting Mr Assa Anongo, I return to the house, where I, earlier, met Felicia’s mother. I had wanted to interview her, since, according to Felicia, she is ‘the only one who supports’ her, but the mother had refused. “Go talk to my husband, he is the head of the family,” she had said, and I had duly done so.

Back at the house I find Felicia. When I tell her what her father says -that she is not attending school and that he doesn’t know what to do with her- there is another surprise in store for me. She now explains that she has another problem: she cannot see very well. An eye disease, of which she doesn’t know the name, is gradually causing more and more loss of eye sight. According to her, it is this gradual loss of sight, and the fear of becoming blind, that has made it difficult for her to stay in school.

An uncle in Kumasi

I realise that Felicia needs the kind of help that is simply not available in Nimpu. What is a seventeen-year old, fearing that she is going blind and not coping at school, to do?  Later, back in the region’s capital at Jema Junior High, head mistress Madam Helen will suggest that Felicia should learn a trade. Vocational colleges that provide for administrative and technical skills are plenty in the region. Maybe it would be good for her to choose one of those. But doesn’t one need to see to attend those, too?

The case of Felicia Anongo, though reported to the Social Welfare Department in the region, has met with a typical government response: none at all. The NGO World Vision has, ever since they had a discussion with the father  -apparently Mr Assa Anongo told them curtly that they were welcome to ‘marry’ the child and care for her if they wanted to- also failed to find a way forward. As far as I can ascertain, the World Vision project does not provide treatment for girls with eye disease (which is perhaps surprising, come to think of it, for an NGO called ‘World Vision’).

The father said he would gladly have the NGO take the child off his hands

There is, however, some light at the end of the tunnel. Felicia’s uncle from Kumasi (the second largest town in Ghana) has taken her in to live with him. She is also now receiving medical treatment which, the family is hopeful, will soon restore her sight. In the end, though perhaps in unforeseen ways- the Child Right Clubs have had some impact on the wellbeing of Felicia Anongo. I’ll be sure to mention it in my report.

Karimatu Anas is a researcher connected to the Ministry of Communications in Ghana and a women and children’s rights advocate.