By force, not by choice
Growing up as a girl in Africa generally isn’t easy. You grow up seeing your world to be very large but your space within it very small, with clearly marked boundaries, very limited choices and opinions that cannot be expressed and even when expressed are not taken into account. Cameroon isn’t different from many African Countries. The laws and policies may be there eliminating all forms of discrimination against the girl child but change is hard to come. Education is open for all but we still have fewer girls than boys going to school though they make up a majority of the population. The question now is why we have fewer girls in schools. I talked with a number of people and this is what they had to say.
Poverty: “I know you will ask me isn’t Primary education free for both sexes, you will be right but most parents in this area still cannot afford the direct cost involved in educating their children; buying books, pencils, bags and uniforms and if a choice has to be made between sending a boy or a girl to school, the boy will usually be given preference” Mr. Tamfu Peter, Headmaster in a Primary school Mbengwi, Momo division of the North West Region.
Early marriages and disrespect for women: Mrs. Tangu Constance, a Secondary school teacher in Pinyin North West Region said; “Girls are treated as objects “temporal property” as their fathers will say and will ask you why they should educate a girl child when she will end up as a housewife. We find it really hard sending our girls away for fees because they will hardly come back, their fathers use it as an opportunity to send them into marriage, with the excuse that they do not have money to continue with their education”. In most villages in Cameroon, girls as early as 14 are married off to men far older than them, men who do not see any value in educating their wives.
Lack of sex education: Miriam gave a whole new perspective to this when she said “I couldn’t stand my classmates laughing at me, I had to stay away from school till I had my baby and when I had her responsibilities kept adding, I had to drop out from school permanently” Teenage pregnancies account for a good number of drop outs from school. With sex education being a taboo in most Cameroonian homes and schools, most girls grow up knowing nothing about their bodies, about their sexuality and reproductive health so when changes start occurring all they do is experiment and the next thing we know is babies start having babies.
Bereavement: On Geraldine’s part, she was only 15 when she lost her mother and had to stay out of school to take care of her younger ones. She became a mother to them at that very tender age and since then has not been able to go back to school.
Lack of a voice and cultural biases: My girls are practically being made wives and mothers without their concern. Nobody cares how they feel or what they want in life. It’s about what their fathers want and what culture demands and since their mothers are equally uneducated and do not have to speak while men are talking they bury their heads in silence and carry out their husbands orders. Women and girls need to be able to speak out and so “NO” to violation of their rights but the challenge is they don’t know what their rights are, they only know what tradition says, they don’t know who to speak to, they can only keep quiet, no one to speak for them.
To break these barriers I’ll propose;
Educating girls on their rights and bodies: Girls need to know what they are entitled to by the law and know where to go to when their rights are violated. Knowing the changes their bodies will go through and how to handle each stage will help them to be more discipline. Mrs. Tangu Constance runs girls’ education clubs in Secondary schools, I recently started monthly young women leadership forums and we are having great results. To achieve greater results, parents and teachers should be educated on the girls’ rights and trained on how to talk to children about their sexuality.
Don’t just give them fish, teach them how to fish: Incentives for the education of girl children are good but helping parents with training on entrepreneurs and giving micro credits or grants for startup I believe will have a long lasting effect.
Educated women and girls should be trained on monitoring and reporting human rights violation cases. They will act as the eye and voice of girls and women in their community.