Thursday, October 18, 2012

Flood victims offer their girls as young brides

Posted by Roland Berehoudougou, Plan International's Regional Disaster Risk Manager for West Africa

When the President of Cameroon has been a long time outside of the capital city, something exceptional must be happening. President Paul Biya had spent four days in North and Far North Regions of Cameroon, comforting his countrymen who had been displaced by the flood and had congratulated aid agencies for their hard work. As he left Maroua, I was on my way to Kai-Kai, located near the Chad border.

Fatima appeals to Plan for help
during a meeting with village elders in Cameroon
where seasonal flooding has left 67,000 people without homes.
When I was first told that I would be going to Kai-Kai, it sounded like a place in China! That was the first time that I had heard of this tiny rural town. But my colleagues told me: “Visit Kai-Kai and you will understand the gravity of the situation”. And so I agreed to visit.

I have dealt with more floods than I can remember, but what I have seen in Kai-Kai has been unbelievable.

Torrential rains in Cameroon and neighboring Chad and Nigeria coupled with the destruction of a protection dyke along the Logone River had submerged about 50 villages. In this one area alone, more than 67,000 people had been left homeless.

When speaking with the displaced elders at a makeshift camp, a tiny female voice had interrupted our conversation.

“We need pure water and mosquito nets. If we don't receive them, we will die", the woman said. She was holding a baby and looked tired. Her baby was sick. Both appeared to be very weak.

I knew immediately that the problem was very serious. In this culture, women stay in the background and it is the men who speak. When Fatima had stepped forward to interrupt the conversation with the elders, I knew the situation was desperate.

She had tried to smile, but I felt the sadness and her eyes looked empty: "We were living in Socomai, about 10 km from here. We had everything there. We grew maize, sorghum, potatoes and cassava and reared cattle. One day, the water level started rising. We fled. Everything is underwater. The hippopotamus are eating our crops. Everything is gone. We have nowhere to go and are all living in a school. We have no sleeping mats, no blankets, and no food.

Fatima then urged me to go with her to the Kai-Kai Primary School so that I could witness their living conditions firsthand.

The school was very small. It consisted of six classrooms, but it looked more like a little village. There were more than 600 people living in this six-classroom school. In addition to the people, there were bits and pieces of furniture saved from the flood, goats, hens, and horses. When it rained, the animals also needed to be brought inside of the school.

“They represent the only wealth we still have", an elderly woman told me. Just 30 feet from the classrooms was the unrealistic sight of boys casting their nets trying to catch fish. The building was protected by a mud dyke.

It was unbelievable. Six hundred people were living within a 2,153 square-foot space. It must be the most densely populated place on earth and probably violates all humanitarian guidelines for emergency shelters.

Mamoudou, a seventy year-old man asked: “Where else can we go? We pray and hope that it will not rain in the coming days."

More shocking and totally unbelievable is the fate of the adolescent girls who live there.

In this space, I saw very young girls and more mature women collecting water from the school borehole.

“Where are the young girls and adolescents?” I had asked one mother.

“This place is not safe for them. To prevent them from becoming ‘spoiled’ by the men here, we have sent them to live with our neighboring families,” she replied matter-of-factly.

Later, I learned that these girls were all on “the market” and have been waiting for marriage proposals. In order to save their families from shame and to protect the girls from sexual abuse, families have been prepared to offer their girls to anyone who can offer them a dowry.

A spot of land has been donated by the authorities for them to re-settle. Residents of this crowded spot have been moving out in order to build grass huts for their families and safeguard their animals.

Since their huts are not waterproof, they are hoping that it will not rain.

In the aftermath of the floods, Plan has been providing emergency assistance to the these families. This assistance includes: food, sanitation and personal hygiene kits, water disinfectants, and temporary learning spaces with school supplies.

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