They are happy they survived gruesome terror attacks, she’s happier unmarried
15-year-old Bienvenue Ngatsebai pushes his younger brother’s head backwards with his left palm and swipes his right hand across his throat in a sword-like movement dramatically as he tells me how he watched Boko Haram terrorists slaughtered his parents.
“It was in 2014 and I was watching from a tree. They were four of them, carrying guns, but they used sharp cutlasses to kill my mother, my father and my two elder brothers, Zinahad and Benjamin Amouna by cutting their throats”, says Ngatsebai.
Ngatsebai and his 7-year old younger brother, Ekoltem now live with their grandfather in Baigai, 40 kilometers from home. “We trekked for about four days to get here. With two of our friends” he says.
Goldé Kouleh, 8, and 7-year old Bohoy Tekoltom both confirmed they were with Ngatsebai when Boko Haram insurgents attacked their village, Mabasburu in 2014.
“We were playing football in the afternoon when the attack took place. We dispersed into the bushes and only came out after the killers had gone. We trekked together till we got here. They went to their grandparents while my brother and I went to the Lawan (traditional ruler) since we had nowhere to run to.
All four are currently pupils of the Government Primary School Baigai. It is the lone accessible primary school out of 25 earmarked to benefit from a European Union funded education program for Nigerian refugees and internally displaced children in Cameroon’s Far North region- the others were still marked as high risk zones when I visited at the end of the 2015/2016 academic year.
They took part in a drawing exercise organised in the school by UNICEF on June 2, 2016. They were asked to illustrate what they would like to become in future.
A majority of the children in the school of 600 pupils drew imaginary scenes of Boko Haram insurgents slaughtering people and images of themselves in army uniforms and helicopters attacking the insurgents. Only a few of them wanted to be teachers, medical doctors, herdsmen and journalists.
They told me they wish they could fight against Boko Haram in vengeance, report on Boko Haram or carry out humanitarian services when they grow up.
As for Ngatsebai, he said he would like to become a footballer since all friends of his want to become soldiers. “I will like to be like the national team striker, Samuel Eto’o Fils when I grow up” he said. They said they were happy they escaped the terror attacks, and could now go back to school.
Like them, 16-year-old Vadzaya Monique, victim of the first Boko Haram invasion in Cameroon in 2013, equally took part in the drawing exercise.
“I don’t know whether my parents are still alive. When Boko Haram attacked our village, my father, Mekote Guidana and my mother, Helle were not at home. So I took my younger sisters, Matawassa (now 10 years old) and Golam(now seven) and we wandered away till we got here” she told me.
Vadzaya says they trekked for seven days and when villagers realised that they were lost children, they took them to the home of the Lawan in Baigai.
This year she was supposed to sit the First School Leaving Certificate end of course exam required for entrance into secondary school. “They said I would not sit the exams because I don’t have a birth certificate. But at least I am happy to be in school”.She would like to become minister of basic education, she said.
She also said she has lost hope she would ever see her parents again.
She revealed she was 13 when her parents forced her to marry a wealthy man she did not even know.She kept running back home; a move which made her family to despise her. She told me her parents let her live with them only after a traditional ruler stopped them from forcing her into the marriage.
Etienne Wawi, the head teacher of the school who said no parent or relative has ever come looking for a displaced child in the school, told me everything has been put in place for her to get a birth certificate before the next session of the First School Leaving Certificate exams in May 2017. He complained the government school has only 4 teachers expected to educate 600 children in a year.
“I am happy where I am. Boko Haram attacks are less likely to be carried out here and we live with a Christian clergyman who would not force me to marry.”
Forced marriages persist
UNICEF, Medicines Sans Frontier, UNHCR, Premier Urgence and many other local and international NGOs are helping refugees, IDPs and underprivileged persons in Cameroon, but women’s rights activist, Francoise Baba, says so much is still left undone when it comes to early marriages.
Francoise Baba, President of the Association of Adamawa Women and Girls, was speaking on a panel, October 18,2016. She was in the company of victim of forced marriages, Hawao Aissatou, an official of the UNFPA and a government representative. The ceremony was the opening of an art exhibition in Yaounde, organised by the Canadian High Commission, on early marriages in Cameroon.
Francoise said as long as poverty and illiteracy prevails, forced marriages will persist. She also emphasized the practice stems from the cultures of the (Muslim dominated) northern regions of Cameroon. “Other parents give their young girls out to grown men because they do not want them to lose their virginity or carry unwanted pregnancies out of wedlock” she said, noting that it is in a bid to avert taboos that some parents force their children, some as young as 10 to marry.
Poor government regulations exacerbate early marriages
Anne Chantal Handjou of Cameroon’s Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Promotion of the Family would not blame government for the persistence of marriages with laws. Currently it is legal for girls to marry at 15 whereas some girls, like 16-year-old Vadzaya Monique do not even have birth certificates.
Handjou admits that 28 percent of maternal mortality cases in the country involve under aged girls.She says parliamentarians are still working on legislation to criminalize early marriages. She however argues that even without a law, citizens would shun maternal marriages if properly sensitized.
Gabriel Tchoko Makwa, of the UNFPA says the UN agency is playing a vital role; collaborating with government and the civil society to fight against child marriages. “We provide technical assistance, support sensitization campaigns at the grassroots and school men and women on the ills of early marriages.
Francoise Baba, and other activists, including indigenous women associations, still argue the fight against early marriages in Cameroon is centered on urban areas, whereas the situation in worst in rural areas. “In some rural areas where the only entertainment is body pleasure, men earmark 5-year old girls as their future brides in their polygamous homes,” says Francoise.
Some of the solutions proffered besides education and sensitization included empowering mothers with skills and income generation activities.