Fadimatou looking at a sign.

"I never wanted my daughter to drop out of school, but I had no choice”

In the Far North region of Cameroon, going to school is not guaranteed, and neither is it an acquired right. Children often struggle to go to school because of the challenging humanitarian situation.

Fadimatou, 14, is a teenager living in Igawa Mémé town. The eldest of eight children, she lives in a one-parent family. Fadimatou is a strong, determined young woman who dreams of becoming a top fashion designer one day.

But due to the crisis affecting the Far North region, she was forced to drop out of school following violence perpetrated by armed groups against her family in 2017. Her father took her out of school and introduced her to small business and farm work to help him support the family. In addition, she often helps with household chores.

Unfortunately, her situation is far from unique. In the Logone-et-Chari division, 145 primary schools have been destroyed or temporarily closed because of conflict and insecurity, including clashes between communities over cultivable lands. This has affected around 45,000 children. In addition, 126 schools were affected by floods in the Logone-et-Chari and Mayo-Danay divisions in October 2022, depriving nearly 39,800 pupils of their right to access education.

Portrait of Fadimatou standing outside the Accelerated Education Programme centre.
Fadimatou at the AEP centre, Igawa Mémé. Photo: Manfouo/NRC

"I never wanted my daughter to drop out of school, but with no money and no work, I had no choice. We had to find a way to survive because you can't study on an empty stomach," says her father.

In 2020, the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) informed host communities and internally displaced people in Igawa Mémé about the Accelerated Education Programme (AEP) and its campaigns for girls' education. The AEP is a flexible, age-appropriate programme that provides accelerated access to education for disadvantaged groups, older children and young people who have interrupted their education due to poverty, marginalisation, conflict, and displacement.

The programme is flexible and free for all children who enrol. Fadimatou told her father about it, and he immediately agreed to enrol her at the Igawa Mémé centre.

“I was so sad to see her getting more and more depressed every day, because she wanted to go to school so badly. So, when she told me about this programme, I believed that Allah had finally heard my prayers to help me make my daughter's dream come true," her father recalls.

In April 2021, Fadimatou began attending classes and continued for the next two years until she obtained her diploma to access secondary education in 2023.

"I started the AEP in cohort 1 in 2021 with Mrs Fanta, my teacher. I liked her a lot because she really encouraged me not to give up. Sometimes, it was hard. I used to walk over 1 km every day to attend school. But I succeeded, along with six of my classmates, four girls and two boys. I hope that other children like me will also have the chance to go to school,” says Fadimatou.

Fadimatou waving to her father on her first day in high school.
Fadimatou is accompanied by her father on her first day in high school. Photo: Manfouo/NRC

With the support of European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), NRC and Plan International, in close collaboration with Cameroon’s Ministry of Basic Education, have been implementing the pilot phase of the AEP in the Far North region of Cameroon since 2021. The programme has supported almost 25,000 people across Cameroon, including more than 400 children at the Igawa Mémé AEP centre.

The programme provides school kits and covers the costs of national examinations and teacher training. In addition, considering the growing educational needs of children who have dropped out of school because of the crisis, NRC, in consortium with Plan International and in collaboration with other humanitarian partners, UNICEF and the International Rescue Committee, aims to work towards the integration of the AEP into the Ministry’s official education curricula.

"Children have been able to go to school in our village since 2021, which has helped a lot of parents who didn't have the means [to send their kids to school]… Thanks to this programme, the children have been able to learn and seven students passed their exams this year. But the children need more support. Others are waiting for the opportunity to go to school too, but the school isn't big enough for all of them," explains Maloum, President of the parents group association of the AEP in Igawa Mémé.

How education in emergencies is helping conflict-affected children

The situation in the Far North region remains worrying due to the continuing attacks and incursions by armed groups, and the operations of the defence and security forces in response. This situation is having a considerable impact on the living conditions and movements of civilians in the affected areas. Civilians continue to suffer the consequences of the armed conflict, either as direct targets or as collateral victims in the departments of Mayo-Sava, Mayo-Tsanaga and Logone-et-Chari.

Only 27 per cent of the funds required for Cameroon’s humanitarian response was received as of September 2023. The education sector received only 2 per cent of the funding requirements for 2023.

According to the Cameroon Humanitarian Needs Overview 2023, an estimated 482,000 school-aged children, including over 366,000 internally displaced people, need humanitarian assistance in the Far North region. In addition, many parents, influenced by cultural norms, may not prioritise the education of young girls, only considering them as future homemakers. Combined with the lack of civil documentation, especially birth certificates, many children cannot access education or present themselves at the final exams of primary school. This means they are unable to transition to secondary education.

Insecurity and violent attacks have resulted in mass population movements. As of 30 September 2023 , over one million internally displaced people, almost 646,000 returnees, and over 480,000 refugees and asylum seekers have been recorded in Cameroon, including about 120,000 from Nigeria.

People are surviving in harsh conditions without sufficient humanitarian assistance due to underfunding. As they seek refuge in urban centres that they deem safer, the constant influx of school-aged children is putting a severe strain on education infrastructure. While the highest teacher/pupil ratio allowed by government regulations is 1/60, the average ratio is 1/149 in the Far North and North regions, with many schools having over 200 children in a single classroom. Children's learning outcomes are still low in these two regions compared to the rest of the country.

In 2022, 33 per cent and 49 per cent of pupils who passed the primary end-of-cycle exams did not achieve minimum proficiency in language and numeracy, in the two regions respectively. These results are due to various factors, such as the lack of school materials and the absence of trained teachers.

Communities used to hire local teachers to complement the insufficiency of trained teachers. However, these locally hired teachers lack the technical background and skills to deliver quality teaching for primary school pupils and are regularly underpaid by the community.

In the Far North region, cultural practices increase the rate of child marriage, especially among girls . Therefore, many girls still do not have the privilege of completing a full cycle of primary and/or secondary education. They are oriented from an early age towards domestic life and marriage, as parents prefer to give priority to the education of boys. According to countrywide statistics provided by the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, between the ages of 6 and 14, only 80 per cent of girls attend school compared to 94 per cent of boys. Moreover, 40 per cent of girls abandon school before they reach the fourth and fifth year of primary education. Some 31 per cent get married before the age 15, especially in rural communities.

Efforts to promote an inclusive quality education system include breaking barriers hindering access to education for displacement-affected children, especially girls. Educating girls and women is the best investment a country can ever make. Thanks to the Accelerated Education Programme, Fadimatou had the opportunity to return to school. Yet more remains to be done for thousands of children who aspire to nothing more than access to safe and quality education.

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