In April 2014 the news of nearly 300 schoolgirls being kidnapped from Chibok elementary school in Nigeria shocked the world. The Islamic extremist group Boko Haram were found to be responsible. A few of the girls have managed to escape since, but nearly 9 months later, the majority of the girls are still missing, and their parents, families, friends and even the Nigerian government are no closer to finding them and bringing them back.
The viral hashtag #bringbackourgirls swept the globe and alerted the western world to the fact that girls being punished for getting an education is still a real and dangerous thing that is happening in a lot of places. Boko Haram, whose mission it is to rid the world of western influences, say educating a girl goes against their beliefs, and they have also sent messages to the international media (via video) that the girls have now been married off and we should stop looking for them.
Boko Haram’s reach seems to be intensifying and increasing after this attack, as news from Cameroon is that they are trying to recruit the youth in that country, while local Imams are desperately trying to teach the true ways of Islam to their citizens in order to show that this group are nothing but terrorists, and have nothing to do with their beliefs.
A year before the nearly-300 girls were kidnapped, Boko Haram were already wreaking havoc in parts of Cameroon. A woman by the name of Martine Tchitchihe, who was studying for her Masters in teaching at a college in the north of her country (close to the border of Nigeria), was attacked by members of the group in May 2013.
At the time she was attending the University of Maroua and would socialize with U.S Peace Corps volunteers in the city. Martine does not know how they found out about her, but she suspects they did not like that A) she was associated with white people, and B) that she was becoming an educated woman. One day she was ambushed by roughly 15 men. After beating, urinating and spitting on her, the leader said they were members of the terrorist Islamist group Boko Haram. The leader told Martine to stop helping foreigners, stop pursuing her studies, convert to Islam, and get married because “it’s shameful to still be single at 28 years old.”
Despite her horrific ordeal she determinately finished her Masters thesis in July 2013, graduating with honors! But that wasn’t the end of her ordeal, even though she thought it was.
“On June 29, 2014, a colonel in the Cameroonian secret police requested a meeting with me. I was asked to retell my story and to try to identify my attackers from a series of photos. At the end of the meeting, my interviewers indicated that the meeting ‘never took place”’and that I was not to tell anybody about it,” she re-tells.
“Shortly after this meeting, I began receiving threatening phone calls from restricted numbers. The callers accused me of leaking classified information from the Cameroonian government. Other callers, who I assumed to be with Boko Haram, told me to stop helping the police or they would find me and kill me. I was scared for my life, so I went into hiding. I changed my phone number – twice – but they always found me; the death threats continued. I had horrible nightmares, incurable insomnia, and I was living in a constant state of anxiety and fear.”
In October 2014, Martine found a way out. She escaped to the US by applying for a teacher exchange fellowship through a non-profit organization called Opportunity Africa, based in Minnesota, who fight for girls’ education in areas where it is not common. After the fellowship ended, the organization, who also raise money for high school scholarships, decided to launch a campaign to raise money which would allow Martine to stay in the country so that she could take up a paid position at the non-profit. They position they created was Program Coordinator which would also allow Martine to continue fighting for other girls’ education, something she is especially passionate about after all she has been through.
Both Martine and Heather Buessler, co-f0under of Opportunity Africa, spoke to us about her horrific ordeal, and how fighting for an education as a girl is not something to be taken lightly.
Heather and her partner Michelle Wilson founded the org in 2007 after an experience studying abroad in Cameroon.
“I would stay with host families who didn’t necessarily have much financially, but they always made me feel welcome,” said Heather. “The only time they ever asked for money was in relation to education.”
That sparked the fire for Heather and Michelle, after they returned to the US, to create a way to help students in Cameroon afford to go to school. Right now they are focused on one country, but plan to expand in the future. Their focus is to create a cross-cultural experience where teachers and students have the opportunity to get a taste of what life is like in another country, as well as raising money for scholarships.
Heather says the high school age is crucial for girls in Cameroon.
“Primary school is free, so parents can afford to send both male and female children, but high school isn’t so that’s where we see a huge drop off of girls. Boys are favored as the children to send to school. Less than 1% of the female population in Cameroon has their masters, so someone like Martine is a rarity.”
The question that continues to plague many of us is “why is an educated girl such a threat?”
“There are deep-rooted perceptions of gender relations in a country like Cameroon, which is predominantly Muslim in the North where Martine is from, and educated women upset that notion,” explains Heather.
Heather’s passion for this cause comes not just from her exchange experience, but her own educational background. She studied public health and believes education is a precursor for freedom in a lot of ways for women in certain areas.
“Educated women have the potential to have healthier families, make better decisions for their lives, and this forms the basis for gender transformations in society. It also creates greater financial opportunities, which is why education is a necessary foundation.”
According to a report by Think Africa Press, UNICEF figures show the country’s net primary school enrollment rate is now at around 84%, making it one of the highest ranking nations in West and Central Africa. But 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.
UNICEF’s Cameroon Operations Chief, Daouda Guindo says “31% of girls [in Cameroon] get married before the age of 15.”
While the African nation may be making strides for education equality, there is still a long way to go, which is why foundations like Opportunity Africa are vital.
Martine may be a world away from Cameroon now, but she is fighting harder than ever to change the way girls are treated in her home country. She says the high rate of underage marriage, early pregnancy, lack of access to higher education and gender discrimination are the key factors in keeping women oppressed in Cameroon, and in many other African nations.
While the Boko Haram attack certainly upset her and still does if she dwells on it, she is a firm believer in the saying “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It may sound cliched, but in Martine’s case, there is a reason they allowed her to live, and she is taking that opportunity to fight for girls.
Being from a family with 17 siblings, Martine chose to only tell her mom about the attacked, who surprisingly believed it was her fault because she was 28 and not yet married. While the reaction certainly shocked her, it made Martine realize how lucky she was because there are many others who don’t come out of the types of situations she does alive.
Her attack happened roughly a year before the Chibok elementary girls in Nigeria were kidnapped, and when she heard the news she was devastated. She even felt a little responsible, but more than anything, her anger forced her to speak that much louder about the plight of girls around the world who face barriers to getting an education.
One of the biggest things that hurts Martine is the way the terrorists use religion as a reason for their actions.
“When women are educated they become scared. They use God as a pretense. No one should ever be attacked just because they don’t believe in God. My message to those extremists is that they need to stop using Islam to abuse women,” she said.
It has forced Martine to see that her experience now makes her a role model to many other girls in Cameroon, and elsewhere, who could face the same atrocities as she did simply for following their dreams.
“I am passionate about education, it is truly the only key to creating an equal world, and we need it to understand each other,” she said.
“Many countries are still very male-dominated. The world has a choice to do something to change this. Back in the 19th century the big fight was to end slavery. In the 20th century it was taking down dictators. Now in the 21st century, our biggest fight is for gender equality, and it is up to us to make it happen”
Martine’s role models are Malala, who has become the official face and spokesperson for girls education around the world, having also been attacked by a terrorist group for advocating just that. Her other hero is Hillary Clinton, a woman who has used her entire political career to fight for gender equality and speak up about women’s issues worldwide.
“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights,” Hillary said in her famous speech from 1995.
Sharing Martine’s story was important to us because while terrorist attacks in the heart of Africa may seem like a world away from our comfortable lives in the west, there is still something each of us can do. Awareness goes a long way, and there are more organizations than ever before who are taking up the charge to fight these battles.
“The media has done a great job of promoting these issues and creating awareness, but now it is time for Governments to act,” said Martine about the next steps that need to be taken. “However, the media, and us, we can’t forget about these girls, or the injustices that are happening to women everywhere.”
One of the ways we encourage our readers to get involved is to donate to Opportunity Africa and give other women like Martine the chance to escape a life of turmoil in order to help other girls live in freedom.
It’s one thing to see and read about stories of women such as Martine, Malala, the Chibok elementary girls and many more in the media, it is another thing to take action. If an educated woman is such a threat, then it is our duty as women to use that education to speak up as one united group and push back the barriers that have held our gender back for many years.
If you are a teacher or an educator interested in using your skills to help these girls, please get in touch with Heather at Opportunity Africa.
We want to say a special thank you to Heather and Martine for sharing their incredible stories with us.