Child mar­riage threat­ens fu­ture of young refugees in Cameroon

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

A lone, hun­gry and trau­ma­tized hav­ing watched her parents die in war-torn Cen­tral African Repub­lic, 14-year-old Koul­soumi be­lieved the worst was be­hind her when she was taken in by a fam­ily in Cameroon af­ter flee­ing across the border last year. The young refugee was warmly wel­comed by the fam­ily in the vil­lage of Tongo Gandima. But their hos­pi­tal­ity came at a price. “They had a man for me to marry,” Koul­soumi told the Thom­son Reuters Foun­da­tion, cradling her four-month-old baby, Ha­madou.

“I was not happy but the fam­ily took me in ... what choice did I have?” she said, adding that her 18-year-old hus­band was abu­sive and vi­o­lent, and dis­ap­peared af­ter hav­ing sex with her. Koul­soumi is one of 260,000 refugees - half of whom are chil­dren - from Cen­tral African Repub­lic liv­ing in east­ern Cameroon, a re­gion with a pop­u­la­tion of around one mil­lion. Around six in 10 of these refugees have crossed the border since con­flict erupted in 2013, when mainly Mus­lim Seleka rebels seized power, trig­ger­ing re­venge at­tacks by Chris­tian mili­tias.

Vi­o­lence has less­ened since a Fe­bru­ary elec­tion touted as a step to­ward rec­on­cil­i­a­tion France ended its peace­keep­ing mis­sion in its former colony last week - but out­breaks of fight­ing are fre­quent, leav­ing most refugees afraid to go home. This in­flux has strained aid agen­cies and com­mu­ni­ties across east­ern Cameroon, where more than 90,000 child refugees are out of school, and prey to vi­o­lence, sex­ual abuse and early mar­riage, ac­cord­ing to the UN chil­dren’s agency (UNICEF).

While refugee camps pro­vide free ed­u­ca­tion, most of the refugees - two-thirds - live in vil­lages where they strug­gle to af­ford en­rol­ment fees of up to 2,000 CFA francs ($3). Many end up send­ing their sons to work and forc­ing their daugh­ters to marry. Dwin­dling hu­man­i­tar­ian fund­ing for Cameroon, and the prospect of huge waves of ar­rivals if Cen­tral African Repub­lic plunges back into full-blown con­flict, are stok­ing fears among aid agen­cies for the fu­ture of the coun­try’s young refugees. “This is a for­got­ten cri­sis, one that is weigh­ing heav­i­est on the shoul­ders of young girls,” said Felicite Tchibindat, UNICEF’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive for Cameroon. “Pro­tect­ing them from early mar­riage, and bro­ken lives full of mis­ery, is a pri­or­ity.”

Girls cast aside

In a pub­lic school in the lush, leafy yet im­pov­er­ished Gado vil­lage, a class of teenage refugees from nearby Gado-Badzere camp shouted and laughed as they dis­cussed early mar­riage. “My fam­ily wanted me to marry at 14, but I said: ‘No, I’m get­ting an ed­u­ca­tion’”, yelled one 15-year-old girl, be­fore grin­ning at the ap­plause and cheers of the mostly male class. But many young girls in east­ern Cameroon, a re­gion where around half of girls un­der 18 are mar­ried, are not so for­tu­nate. In an­other school in nearby Abo Boutila, head­mistress Sylvie Ndoume sighed as she handed over a reg­is­ter show­ing only one fe­male stu­dent over the age of 14.

“Once girls reach 13 or 14, the parents cast them aside and throw them in the dust­bin that’s it,” Ndoume said. “For some girls, they might be in school, but in their mind, they are just wait­ing to be taken out and mar­ried.” Many of the refugees are from herd­ing or farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties and do not value ed­u­ca­tion for their chil­dren, aid agen­cies say. Only around one in eight child refugees in east­ern Cameroon have been to school in Cen­tral African Repub­lic, ac­cord­ing to UNICEF.

In Gado-Badzere - the big­gest of the seven camps in east­ern Cameroon with 24,000 refugees - 13-year-old Ais­satou turned away as she re­called her fam­ily’s at­ti­tude to school back home. “My parents didn’t want me to go ... I was meant to be mar­ried,” she said shyly, cov­er­ing her face with her shawl. “But now they see that ed­u­ca­tion is im­por­tant, and don’t in­sist that I get mar­ried any­more,” added Ais­satou, re­lax­ing as she spoke of hav­ing learnt to read, write and count in the camp.

No money means mar­riage

The ru­ral re­gion faces a short­age of state teach­ers, with many pre­fer­ring to work in cities and a re­cent gov­ern­ment freeze on the re­cruit­ment of pub­lic sec­tor work­ers, UNICEF said. Lo­cal par­ent as­so­ci­a­tions are pay­ing to hire teach­ers to fill the gap and to al­le­vi­ate the pres­sure on those who of­ten have to deal with more than 100 chil­dren in crowded class­rooms. But some of the costs are be­ing passed onto parents, and for refugees with very lit­tle or no money, a few hun­dred francs can mean choos­ing be­tween feed­ing their chil­dren or school­ing them. Mother-of-ten Salam­a­tou Vic­torine, who lives in Abo Boutila, said al­though she had mar­ried off three of her six girls - aged be­tween 13 and 17 she hoped that the oth­ers - aged 6, 8, and 12 would be able to stay in school and avoid early mar­riage. “But if our money dries up as a fam­ily, I will in­stantly take them out and marry them,” she said. “It is a ques­tion of means, I will have no other choice if we are go­ing to get by.” — Reuters

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