For many years, Theresa would wake up at 3.45am each morning to start her three-hour walk to school, guided only by torchlight. Constantly looking over her shoulder, she was always on high alert due to the many stories she’d heard of men who lay waiting in the bushes, ready to abduct girls and force them into marriage.
“I wasn’t happy walking to school because of the long distance, and I was so scared of someone snatching me,” the 17-year-old recalls. “When it’s rainy season the grass grows really tall and I was afraid men might be hiding there.”
A surprising solution is helping Theresa, and other girls in her situation, to avoid these kidnappings. She was recently given a bicycle, which means that, as well as getting to class in half the time, it’s far harder for abductors to grab her.
Despite it being illegal in Ghana for anyone under 18 to get married, where Theresa lives, one in five women will still be married before they reach that age. In poorer, rural areas, this can rise to one in three. Child marriage has huge implications for wider society as well as for the women involved – those who marry underage are unlikely to stay in education, leaving them financially dependent on men and perpetuating the cycle of poverty. A recent World Bank report predicted that child marriage will cost developing countries trillions of dollars by 2030.
Benjamin Kwesi Tawaih, who works for Action Aid in Ghana, explains that, despite an ongoing government campaign to tackle child marriage, there are two main factors driving the practice. The first is, unsurprisingly, poverty. “Many people in these communities are living on less than 68p a day,” he says. “If someone comes to a family and offers them just a bit of money to marry their daughter, they will often agree to it.”
The second factor – which is behind the abductions that Theresa and her friends are so scared of – goes back to an old custom in the country’s upper west region, in which groups of men would go and “grab” a wife from rival villages. Around 50 girls are still abducted this way every year.
“In the olden times, a community from one town would go to another and grab a wife for one of them,” Benjamin continues. “Then the people from the other town would come to theirs and kidnap another girl. It was about displaying community power.
“The men who do this today are latching on to this old custom. They’ll say it’s tradition, that their forefathers did it. They’re often men who’ve gone away to work in the city, have a bit of money, then come back to these poor communities and feel like they have some power.”
Girls are most vulnerable when walking to school or out doing errands such as going to the market. Typically a group of men will lie in wait, grab the girl from behind, and take her to a house where her proposed “husband” will be waiting. According to Benjamin, the man’s mother or grandmother will often be there too; she'll tell the girl what is happening and try to convince her to accept it.
The girl will be kept there for a few days while the men go to her parents, offering money or gifts, and arrange the marriage.
The bicycle solution arose when NGOs were carrying out research into the factors behind girls dropping out of education. “Many live as far as 10km away from school, so they’re walking through the dark at 4 or 5am, through thick bush and dangerous terrain,” explains Benjamin. As well as being more vulnerable to abductors, many would drop out of school simply because it was too exhausting to travel there and back.
In 2015, 40 bicycles were purchased for some of the girls, with those living furthest away given top priority. The following year, another 40 were donated from Sweden. Out of all the girls given bicycles so far, not a single one has been abducted, and all are still in education.
If a girl escapes or is rescued before the marriage takes place, it’s possible for her to return home and carry on with her life. NGOs including Action Aid have been training community-based “Combat” groups to do the double work of rescuing girls and also educating others that both forced and underage marriage are illegal.
“The police in Ghana have a lot of funding and logistics problems – sometimes they won’t even have enough petrol to drive out to villages and make arrests,” explains Benjamin. “Members of the community have been trained up in domestic violence laws, so if they hear of a girl being captured, they will find out where she’s being held and demand her release.”
Mary-Lily, 50, works as a local teacher and volunteers on the Combat squad. She recently helped secure the release of two abducted girls, working alongside their parents, and says that challenging community attitudes is one of the most important parts of her job. “Even a few years ago, most people were not even aware that [underage marriage] is against the constitution,” she explains. “We didn’t take action when the girls were taken away.” She says that if they threaten the kidnappers with legal action and make it clear that what they are doing is against the law, they can usually secure the girls’ release. Between 2010 and 2016, a total of 152 girls were rescued this way.
Theresa says that her ambition is to be president of Ghana one day. “I’m not afraid that boys will catch me on the way to school, I know I can just go faster,” she says. “If it wasn’t for the bicycle, perhaps I wouldn’t still be in school.”
The bicycles are one solution but Benjamin says the biggest challenge remains changing people’s attitudes towards women and their roles in society. “In all honesty, girls’ education just isn’t prioritised,” he says. “If a family has a lot of children and not much money, then they will prioritise the boys’ schooling – they’ll think, what’s the point in educating a girl if she will just be a wife and mother?
“We’re trying to help people see the long-term picture – that if a girl is educated, she is more likely to have a career and bring money in that way. Then the parents become more invested in keeping them in school and won’t betroth them into marriage at a young age.
“It’s about helping them see that underage marriage is not in anyone’s best interest.”