Cameroon has earned steady global plaudits for its efforts over the past decade at enhancing access to quality education for its children. UNICEF, for example, ranks the country’s net primary school enrollment rate of 88 percent, among the highest in West and Central Africa.
However, current figures display a persisting imbalance as girls continue lagging behind boys and observers now warn the country may well veer off the Education for All target of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
According to countrywide statistics furnished by the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, between the ages of 6 and 14, only 80 percent of girls attend school compared to 94 percent of boys.
Yawning Gender Gap
Gender disparity between boys and girls varies from urban areas to the far-flung poverty-stricken hinterlands, and especially in predominantly Muslim and polygamy-friendly communities. In the Far North Region, for example, more than 98 percent of boys are enrolled school-goers, against only 69 percent of girls.
The situation in Cameroon mirrors the bigger picture for Sub-Saharan Africa where efforts to recruit and keep girls in school are slow because of low perceptions of the benefits of education, public perceptions that girls don’t need education, extreme poverty and the low levels of education of parents of students.
Cultural expectations of young girls are a major factor. “Forty percent of girls abandon school before they reach the fourth and fifth years of primary education,” said UNICEF’s Cameroon operations chief, Daouda Guindo. “Thirty-one percent of girls get married before the age of 15.”
The country’s three northern and eastern regions with the poorest girl-child school attendance rates have been targeted as priority zones in need of strategies to improve young girls’ attendance. In the Far North Region on the fringes of the Sahara Desert, the situation is particularly troubling with fewer than 17 of every 100 girls in school.
Experts blame falling girl-child attendance on several social factors that relegate African girls to cooking, cleaning and having babies.
“Some parents prefer to give priority to boy education with the reason that the girl will be going on marriage soon and there’s no need to invest in her. Some parents don’t have enough resources and prefer to focus on the education of the boy,” said Plan International Cameroon’s communications adviser, Jaïre Moutcheu.
And that’s not all. Despite long years of campaigning against child marriages, increasing numbers of adolescent girls in Cameroon’s north and east are still being forced into marriage. Most times, the girls don’t know who they are getting married to, and can’t choose between polygamy and monogamy.
Girl-Child Bridal Tyranny
“Yes. It’s true,” said13-year-old Boutou Farida Mohamat, a member of Cameroon’s Children’s Parliament and a student at the Maroua Government Bi-lingual High School in the Far North Region. “They just see the man on the day of marriage. Some of them are very old. The man can even be the great grandfather. It’s so possible,”
For two years, Boutou Farida has been unable to forget her friend, a victim of premature wedlock who died during childbirth.
Boutou Farida Mohamat, 13, is a member of the Children's Parliament of Cameroon and a student in Far North Region.
“I had one friend, but she’s no longer alive,” she said. “Her parents arranged a marriage for her and when it was time for her to give birth, she just died and they could not even operate on her to take out the child. She was so small. She was 12 years old.”
Elsewhere, civil society activists warn that growing numbers of girls in schools across the region are being targeted by teachers and male classmates. There are also reports that some local officials such as education delegates and gendarmerie commanders sexually abuse under-age students in the belief that having sex with virgins brings wealth and power. Many such abuses go unreported by parents who feel powerless to confront the abuses.
Although some incidents are not reported and statistics are not available Aminatou Sali Mourbare, the co-founder of Local Action for Participatory and Self-managed Development (ADELPA), said the number of reported cases is soaring. “We have cases of girls of four years being raped.”
“It’s happening all around here and people are aware,” Aminatou Sali said of rape and child abuse. More women are being encouraged to report incidents of rape and other abuse, “But most cases are shielded from public notice by the silence of parents,” she said. Some parents prefer secret arrangements because they fear that their girls will be stigmatized if the public knows they have been raped. "But such silence to me is connivance,” she argued.
Lifting the barriers
The government works alongside UNICEF, Plan International and others to boost girl-child school attendance: building parent awareness, providing private toilet facilities, offering free textbooks and scholarships to girls, for example. However, dropout rates for girls are only timidly paying off.
“It’s not yet 100 percent, but we’re improving,” said Women’s Empowerment Minister Marie Therese Abena. “And it’s you, your brother, sister, grandmother who still believe in female genital mutilation; your grandfather who still believes in sending a girl to marry before the age of 15.
"So each one of us has to do his own share of the work so that we can see the girl-child evolve in our society and contribute.”
Commemorating the second edition of the International Day of the Girl Child last October 11 under the theme Innovating for Girls’ Education, advocates agreed that educating more girls and women would increase the quantity and quality of human resources needed to drive forward the country’s development. Women comprise the majority of Cameroon’s over 20 million inhabitants but remain far under-represented in the country’s decision-making institutions.
Efforts by the government of Japan, UNICEF and the Cameroon government promote construction of hundreds of “girl-child friendly” primary schools, especially in areas with lowest girl enrollment by offering meals to improve girls attendance and increase support for grassroots women’s advocacy groups promoting girl-child education. Hopefully, experts conclude, such interventions will help bridge the education gaps between Cameroon’s boys and girls in the near future.