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In mid-February 2009 I arrived at work ready to carry out my usual fieldwork, monitoring female students who have received grants to help pay the fees for their Primary School Certificate and middle school entrance exams. These are official exams which all students must take as they approach the end of primary education in Cameroon. No sooner had the working day begun than the Headmaster informed me that three of the girls who had been selected to receive support had been taken out of school because their father didn’t want them to go on to the next level of education. These girls were 11 years old. Others in the same situation are as young as 10. To begin with, the father had used the pretext that his daughters didn’t have birth certificates, but as soon as money was made available for them to acquire them he was quick to take them out of school. In another school I was confronted with another disturbing trend: a girl had been retaking the same class for three years, unable to move up to college, firstly because she had no birth certificate and secondly because her parents were refusing to pay the examination entrance fees. This is just a snapshot of the local realities that little girls face in our region.
How can we understand that a
parent would decide to deprive his own children of an education for the sole
reason that they are ‘girls’? And all
this despite legislation since 1998 that guarantees that primary school is free and
obligatory for all and despite the
existence of national legal instruments and conventions ratified by Cameroon in
1988 and 1989 pertaining to children's
rights, and to the fight against gender based forms of
discrimination and violence. In
order to understand the actions of these parents, these individuals who are
supposed to protect their children, we don’t have to look far. We just have to
ask two simple questions: what does it take to turn a guardian into a tyrant?
And what lies behind this trend?
Understanding the causes
The Extreme North Region of Cameroon is a densely populated province with a population of three and half million, the majority of which is female. Here, the number of undereducated girls is nearly 15% higher than for boys. This figure is unsurprising given that communities are rooted in strong cultural and religious traditions and the patriarchal family is the dominant order. It is my view that girls in this region undergo violence of a most cruel and insidious kind. Put simply, parents who refuse to pay their daughters’ exam entry fees so that they cannot complete primary education or fail to obtain a birth certificate negate a girl’s human right to an education.
I have encountered several different explanations for violence against girls in the context of education, including cultural stereotypes that favour boys over girls, and in the notion that girls are simply there to be married and ultimately belong to another family. From birth, the welcome she is given is different to that given to a baby boy. Very often, the baby is referred to as a ‘future prostitute’, and custom dictates that when a women gives birth to a girl her husband may announce to visitors, with no remorse, that his wife has just opened a bordel (whorehouse). Be it of a sexual or economic nature, men exercise power, domination and control.
Some parents use poverty as a pretext to justify their non-payment of exam fees, or their failure to obtain a birth certificate for their daughter. Yet these fees are next to nothing if such tasks are undertaken swiftly. Birth certificates are free if babies are registered within a month of birth, and the total cost for exam enrolment is 25 dollars. Ignorance about the importance of school and of girls’ rights is an equally common explanation. Some parents hold that girls are destined by birth to be married; to be under the responsibility of, and dependent on, another person. In this context, sending girls to school is seen as false investment. The media also comes into play through its pandering to certain pejorative clichés about girls who have gone to school. It criticises girls for their attire, and shows videos of female graduates divorced from their traditions. Often whole programmes are dedicated to showing girls in mini-skirts and trousers. Such programmes feed the misconception among people in the Extreme North Region that girls who have been to school, especially those go on to middle school, abandon their customs, refuse to get married and disobey their parents.
The high rate of unemployment
among young graduates provides another alibi, with some people going so far as
to suggest a link between high graduate unemployment and girls’ education. For
them, to go to school and not find a high-flying academic post is seen as
wasted effort, and a missed chance to marry their daughters into good families
when they had the chance.
The consequences of such gendered violence are felt by both the girls themselves and their communities. Indeed it is an issue that affects the country nationwide. Consequences include high rates of female dropouts, the continuation of forced and early marriages, and a severe delay in the country’s achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. In the long term, girls are denied the chance to earn a good living in a decent job and forced into a life of dependency in which illiteracy is the norm. The impact of such violence affects the girls’ physiological, physical and social wellbeing, and condemns her to a life of social exclusion.
So what is to be done?
The main challenge is to develop strategies to enable girls to fully enjoy their right to education. The State has introduced a number of measures to raise education levels for girls, designating four of Cameroon’s ten regions, including the Extreme North, as ‘Priority Education Zones’ (ZEP) and piloting the “girl friendly school project’ in several schools. As part of the project, pupils’ mothers are brought together in groups and invited to help educate female students and in some areas bags of cereal are distributed to girls’ parents to encourage them to send their daughters to school. The revision of the educational curriculum is also underway and in this coming academic year students will receive sex and relationship education for the first time.
Along with such state-led initiatives, organizations like the Association to Combat Violence Against Girls and Women (ALVF) open their doors every day in an attempt to turn the situation around. Monitoring groups, girls clubs, information gathering initiatives, listening centres and emergency support funds are all deployed. There are twelve monitoring groups spread out across the Extreme North Region; each group educates girls, boys, men, women, parents, teachers and those who shape public opinion about girls' right to education and freedom from violence.
Each monitoring group is attached to a listening centre. This is a space where a girl who is a victim or survivor of violence can see a counsellor who provides a form of emergency assistance before referring her to a service which can deal with the matter fully. The listening centre enables the girl to get out of the uncomfortable situation and find adequate solutions. Its activities include supporting girls to overcome hurdles of a legal, educational, health or social nature. In 2010, 183 girls from pilot schools in Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri and Yagoua received support in the form of exam entry fee payment to enable them to complete their primary exams and move on to the next level of their education. Other non-governmental organisations such as the Association of Women from the Extreme North, communes, Maroua Youth Group, Diamaré Elite Group and The Development Committee of Mayo Sava, offer textbooks and notebooks. Activities are also organised to bring the lobbying together: awareness-raising workshops and educational outreach with those in the public domain; focus groups with legal professionals and representatives from the town of Maroua, and the convening of a working group with the Regional Delegate for the Promotion of Women and Family in the Extreme North Region.
All these efforts nevertheless fall short because of the general failure to implement laws. This is why the ALVF and its partners have launched a series of lobbying initiatives to persuade the Governor of the Extreme North Region to sign and issue an official regional guidance note (a circulaire régionale) on the prohibition of the practice of early and forced marriages, and on the parental obligation to keep children - especially girls - in school. The guidance note draws attention to three key provisions: “no marriage shall take place without the full and free consent of the future spouses”; “no marriage shall take place in the absence of full observation of the form and practice prescribed by the law” and "all children should be enrolled in school”. The guidance note is aimed at religious authorities, traditional leaders, parents and potential “suitors”. It will provide crucial support to the ALVF and its monitoring groups, both in the context of community awareness work and training with the girls themselves. The publication of the note will help bring irresponsible parents into line, as well as others who continue to promote child marriages in spite of the country’s law. Above all, it will herald a change in behaviour that should, in time, also change people’s attitudes. All this to say that it will encourage people to start treating girls as girls instead of as women. We have been told that the Governor is on the point of signing. We will keep the pressure up until he does!
Girls in our region remain victims of violence of a most subtle and devious kind, the effects of which continue to haunt them throughout their entire lives. Cameroon has a monist system of law, so all international treaties and conventions that have been ratified overrule any corresponding national law. The state must therefore honour the conventions and treaties it has ratified and it must act now, without delay, to realize the principle enshrined in our law: that school is free and obligatory for all, and to punish breaches of this right. We also need a new law to target violence against girls in the sphere of education, as well as a new law to tackle violence against women. Gender-based violence in the school environment may be a taboo, but it is a fundamental problem that we simply cannot afford to ignore.
Translated from French by Jennifer Allsopp
To read this article in French click here