“Girls are harassed, assaulted and raped.” “Sugar daddies exist.” “Girls get harassed by men in their community. Family members, classmates, even teachers.” I knew all of these statements to be true when I had worked with a team of classmates at our course with Partners in Health in Rwanda. We had worked out a puzzle of why young teenage girls were the most at risk population for HIV. It was because they were the most vulnerable to unprotected sex, or sex against their will. We all agreed. Girls were the most vulnerable group in the population. Not just in Rwanda, not just in Cameroon, but worldwide. One glance at Donald Trump’s statements, and one listen to Michelle Obama’s powerful speech really hit it home for me.
And then orientation day arrived at our school. My students had been telling me how hard it was to see ahead in their lives, how fuzzy the future seemed, and how hopeless they felt about what lay ahead for them. Many students shrugged their shoulders when I asked them, why go to school? What is the point of education? Many replied it was their parents forcing them, and at any rate it was the best way to avoid going to the farm and doing backbreaking work in the hot sun. They all sighed when they talked about how corrupt the government was, and how entrance exams for jobs were all rigged anyways.
In support for my students I went to this “orientation day,” which was for the 9th through 12th grade students, although only about 300 attended while the rest goofed off outside or ditched to go home. I hoped that the answers they would get at this round table discussion would help spur further conversations in class about their futures, giving them a newfound hope as they listened to their teachers, vice principals, and leaders spoon out wisdom. As I sat down, watching the students gossiping and chatting away, standing the gym as my fellow teacher spoke, I soon realized I had misunderstood the purpose of orientation day. I watched disappointed, as a table of different male staff members took turns giving out their “wisdom:” “Don’t do drugs,” many said. “Respect your parents and teachers,” another said. “Do you homework.”
Universally, the message came back to uniforms almost every time: “Girls, stop wearing tight fitting uniforms, with short skirts.” “Girls and women, especially female teachers wear tight skirts, and when they lean over, you can see their undies. Stop doing that, you distract the men around you, and bring too much attention to yourselves.” Worse, as the students in an uproar laughed, a male teacher told a funny story of how a female student sat in the front row and opened her legs to distract her teacher, who in a flurry had to run out of the classroom and stop teaching. “Because of that one girl,” he said, shaking his finger, “An entire class of students were not taught.” A final warning to make it clear was, “DO NOT offer sex to your teachers for grades. We have seen this, and we will not allow it.” The message was plain. It was her fault.
Desperately I wondered what I could say, in defense of all the young women in the gym, who were listening to a male-dominated debate. I searched for my fellow female teachers, but none were to be found. How different it felt in that gym that day, wondering what kind of example I was showing by my silence, surrounded by a sea of teenagers who were only half listening, and half ignoring the debate, annoyed that they were locked in the gym late on a Thursday afternoon. I silently cursed myself as I sat there, and later that night wondered what I should have said that could have made a difference, or if it would have made it worse, coming from that “Western foreigner,” whose culture supported sexist men like Trump for president anyways, and had a myriad of raunchy videos and pornography online that displayed shocking images of what women in American can do.
Fortunately someone spoke up. At the end of the debate the men asked if there were any questions in the crowd of teenagers, and one hand shot up. I turned my head as a young lady marched up to the front of the gym, cheered on by her classmates, dressed up as best she could in a school uniform with Converse shoes and brightly colored earrings. One of the male teachers handed her the mic, and she took a moment for dramatic effect, completely aware of her surroundings, and confident. “Yes, I have a question,” she said, pausing for a breath. “One of my male teachers is hitting on me and harassing me in class.” The students went wild. “I would like to know what this school and its administration would like to do about that,” and with her final word she handed the mic to the teacher without so much as a look in the eye and marched off, head high. The students were out of control for a full minute, even though they had been threatened with public whippings and suspension from school if they were caught by their classmates who were sent with the grim task of writing down the names of their friends who were “disturbing the orientation.”
For a moment the male staff members were taken aback, and shuffled papers nervously and rolled their eyes, waiting for the students to quiet down so they could reply. Finally the response came, as strong as it could be. “Let me remind you,” one male staff member said, “that you have an obligation at this school to behave yourself, and to not cause problems in your classroom.” The next reply was worse: “If this kind of thing happens, remember that it is not something that should be discussed with the principal. Instead it is better you come to a discipline master or other teacher, and they will advise you on how best to handle the situation.” I just stared at them, realizing what they were saying. Not only were they telling her not to report the incident to the only person on campus who could actually resolve the issue, perhaps out of fear for themselves, but they were telling her it was her fault.
Before you think all Cameroonian men are horrible people, which is absolutely not true, I am happy to report that one final person did speak, and gave me hope for their sex. It was the president of the Parent Teachers Association, the representative for all parents at the school, and a man with multiple daughters at the Lycée. “Speaking on behalf of all parents at this school, and as a father of several daughters myself,” he started cautiously, “I will say this. We are here for you, for your education, and for your well-being.” A silence fell over the gym. “If such a situation exists, you are always under any circumstances, allowed to speak with us openly. Find me, or another staff member, or the principal. We will help you. This school should be a safe environment for all, and if it is not, it is our duty to change that.”
I cannot say much of what happened after that. The students lost interest and started making noise again, attempting to break through the door that one poor student was attempting to guard warily, knowing his power was limited as the mass started moving towards him. No further questions were allowed, and the male teachers were agitated, ready for the whole thing to be over. After a few words from the vice principal, which spoke of how we should not forget our traditional values and be overcome by “Western ways,” the students were finally released, shoving through the mass, almost stampeding over the keeper of the door. I’d like to say that girl finally got her answer, or that what the PTA president said had resolved the major issue but I was still disturbed. That was perhaps the closest I’d been to seeing this problem. To believing its depth. These girls dreamed of a brighter future, maybe. But just how many obstacles lay in their way? Just let girls learn, as Michelle Obama has said over and over again seems so simple as a message, yet the solution is more complicated than I ever dreamed imaginable.
And yet that one girl, who stood before her classmates, before her school, before a table of older and more powerful men, she spoke out, to defend herself, and others just like her. She was incredibly brave. There is still hope.