Douala — Despite improving school enrolment statistics in Cameroon, girls continue to lag behind boys due to a complex mix of economic and cultural factors.
Over the past decade, Cameroon has made significant steps in making education more accessible to its children and in driving up its school enrolment rates. According to figures from UNICEF, the country's net primary school enrolment rate is now at around 84%, making it one of the highest ranking nations in West and Central Africa.
However, simple statistics rarely tell the whole story. While enrolment rates are rising, many are concerned that girls continue to lag significantly behind their male counterparts.
A study by the Ministry of Women's Empowerment and the Family published in 2012 found that for every 100 boys in education in Cameroon in 2009/2010, there were only 85 girls.
Despite some efforts to correct this inequality, this ratio has remained stubbornly consistent since 2002/2003, and notably this gender disparity widens as you travel from the urban centres to the further-flung and more poverty-stricken hinterlands.
While enhancing access to education is important, ensuring that gender disparities are also addressed in the process will be crucial if education is to help raise all communities out of poverty and develop.
Girls in school
Like many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Cameroon has run up against a number of barriers that mean it is more difficult to ensure girls attend school and do not drop out than boys.
And often the source of continuing gender discrimination lies in a complex mix of traditional attitudes and economic calculation.
"Some parents prefer to give priority to boys' education because they believe girl will soon get married so they see less need to invest in her," explains Jaïre Moutcheu, Plan International's Cameroon Communications Adviser. "Some don't have enough resources and prefer to focus the little they have on the education of the boy."
However, sometimes it goes further.
In some instances, parents see girls as economic burdens and attempt to marry them off as early as possible. Despite long years of campaigning against child marriages, many girls who have barely reached puberty, especially in Cameroon's northern and eastern regions, continue to be forced into early marriage.
According to UNICEF's Cameroon Operations Chief, Daouda Guindo. "31% of girls [in Cameroon] get married before the age of 15."
There are many health and psychological dangers associated with child marriage, especially regarding childbirth when very young, and often girls have no say in whom they marry and can end up in polygamous relationships.
Speaking to Think Africa Press about the experiences of some of her friends, 13-year-old Boutou Farida Mohamat, a member of Cameroon's Children's Parliament and student at the Maroua Government Bilingual High School in the Far North Region, explains: "They [child brides] just see the man on the day of marriage. Some of men are very old.
"I had one friend who's no longer alive. 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."
Meanwhile, as well as there being higher barrier to getting girls into school than boys, many nations have found that ensuring girls stay in school can prove difficult too.
There are several reasons for this, but some civil society activists are increasingly warning of some schools across Cameroon becoming high-risk zones for sexual offences by male teachers and classmates.
"It's happening all around here and people are aware," says Aminatou Sali Mourbare, co-founder of the NGO Local Action for Participatory and Self-managed Development (ADELPA), referring to a rise in recorded cases of rape and sexual abuse of girls in Cameroon.
"But most cases are shielded from public notice by the silence of parents who opt for behind-the-scenes arrangements because they fear that their girls will be stigmatised if the public knows they have been raped.
"Such silence to me is connivance," she adds.
Over the years, the government has made efforts - often with the help of NGOs such as UNICEF and Plan International - to boost the school attendance of girls.
There have been sensitisation campaigns targeting parents and communities, some schools have been made more girl-friendly such as by fitting enclosed toilet facilities, programmes have been created to help provide books and scholarships to girls, and schemes to help those who have dropped out of school return have been established.
Meanwhile, a new effort backed by the government of Japan and UNICEF could see the construction of "girl-child friendly" primary schools especially in areas with lowest enrolment for girls; enhanced incentives for girls attending schools such as food handouts; and strengthened support for women's advocacy groups promoting girls' education.
However, in many of these measures, progress has so far been slow if steady. And many see the crucial change necessary as being that in cultures and attitudes.
Marie Therese Abena, Cameroon's Women's Empowerment Minister, for example, is optimistic about the improvements that have been made - "It's not yet 100%, but we're improving," she says - but emphasises that lasting change has to come from the ground up.
"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," she says. "So each one of us has to do their own share of the work so that we can see the girl-child evolve in our society and contribute."
Ntaryike Divine Jr. Ramzi is a renowned journalist and alumnus of the International Visitor Leadership Programme. He is the Voice of America correspondent in Cameroon and a stringer for several news outlets including the Associated Press, Science and Development Network, Think Africa Press and Africa Report.
He was awarded Cameroon Journalist of the Year in 2009 and Best Discovery Story in 2010. Ramzi graduated in October 2012 with a distinction in Science Journalism Cooperation.