In the last decade, the number of teenage pregnancies in Cameroon has continued to increase. As one of the effects of teenage pregnancies, many young girls leave school prematurely. Unlike before, the government of Cameroon has modified its policy to allow students to take maternity leave and to return to school when they can. Unfortunately many girls especially in rural communities who leave school as a result of pregnancy do not have the opportunity to attend school again in their entire lives. This same fate would have befallen one of my students if I had not advocated on her behalf to stay in class with her baby and take exams.
Little actions can transform the lives of women and girls and it’s always possible when we refuse to remain indifferent. For the last four years, I have been taking part time classes at National Polytechnic Bamenda (NPB) in the department of Journalism. NPB is one of the most reputable higher institutions of learning in Cameroon that admits thousands of students every year. In my department, I teach three courses. These courses are Society Media and Culture, Human Rights and Gender Issues at the level of the Higher National Diploma and Public Relations and Advertising at the Degree level. The Course I and my students have enjoyed most for the past eight semesters has always been the Gender and Human Rights Issues Course. This is practically because the course provides us with space ‘though not always safe’ to talk about just anything related to gender, human rights, disability, children, abortion/choice, LGBTI, marriage, sex, stereotypes, and more. Secondly I think my students also enjoy the fact that I give them the latitude to say just whatever they want from how they are treated in their homes as per their gender, role models, to how they would want to share house chores with their future partners or companions because they are now wearing gender lenses. The Gender and Human Rights Course is usually taken in level one. During this first year I always manage to have and keep most of my students on my side till they graduate. Though firm to ensure they study, our little moments of interjections to talk about issues in our gender course are never missing during the other courses. Thus this course has always set the pace for I and my students to bond. Their loyalty and friendship to me has sometimes caused my colleagues to inquire how I manage to get them do just what I want with little resistance? I tell my colleagues I listen to them and I have respect for their opinions.
During one of my classes two years ago, I was embarrassed when a final year female student came to class with a baby. I was the only one who didn’t know she had a baby. So I asked whose baby it was she hesitated and said
‘madam it’s my baby’.
I went further what are you doing with the baby in class I asked?
‘madam I don’t have a nanny my neigbours have been helping me out and today there was no luck and I can’t afford to miss the test which is part of exams’.
It was against school rules and a distraction for a baby to be in class with the mother. Not wanting to disobey school rules, I asked her to leave my class and concentrate on taking care of her baby. She looked at me straight into my eyes with tears rolling down her cheeks and said
‘madam this is the only opportunity I have and this is one of the few courses I still have to validate.
‘if I go back home without a degree my father will never give me a second chance. He will tell me I preferred a baby than studying. That will be the end of school for me’.
Touch by her words, I did not want to discomfort her further. I asked her to sit down. Now I needed to do something fast so as not to be betrayed by those who would not want to go out of their way to accommodate such nonsense.
I told my student who I will like to call Titi, I needed just two things from her. I said Titi:
‘you will sit at the back of the class near the corner so as not to be very visible. Secondly just make sure the baby stays quiet’.
She nodded and wiped her eyes. I then turn to my students and address them with the words
‘dear students you know I am a teacher and apart from being a teacher I am an activist. I am a feminist and a mother. You all know I am passionate about helping those who are vulnerable especially girls and women. ‘You see we just have to manage Titi and her baby. You see she already has an additional responsibility that is to take care of a baby even though she is not quite ready. It’s important she takes her exams which will help her get a job’. I went on
‘you can all recall that in our Human Rights and Gender Issues Class we talked about discrimination on the bases of status. We also talked about positive discrimination. I know it’s wrong to allow her in class. Let’s think about equity and positive discrimination as we learnt. You are all students but your needs are different. By allowing Titi in class would be our first experience in protecting and promoting the rights of a vulnerable person. Titi cannot afford a nanny and at the same time she has a right to education. Please let’s give her a chance. Ladies please just understand it could have been any of you.
For the guys I said
‘the father of this baby can even be one of you or your friend in another class’. Before I could finish this sentence everyone started shouting and laughing and saying at the same time ‘madam! Madam! Madam! It is ok! It is ok! Some were saying ‘we have understood. Others we will collaborate. we will not betray you’, we will! We will not ….
Holding her little 12 weeks old baby close to her chest, Titi was able to take her exams. She thanked me immensely at the end of the class. She promised to work harder for exams and also for her life dreams. She added ‘madam your kind gesture has opened a complete new page in my life. I will never spare a chance to speak out on behalf of a vulnerable women/girl she concluded.
I am happy I could do this for her. It is our business at Center for Gender Justice and Women Empowerment Cameroon to give voice to the voiceless. We use every little opportunity at our disposal to transform lives and communities. What happened in my class that day did not only transform the life of my student-mother but those of her peers to be sensitive to the needs of those who are vulnerable.