Alone, hungry and traumatized having watched her parents die in war-torn Central African Republic, 14-year-old Koulsoumi believed the worst was behind her when she was taken in by a family in Cameroon after fleeing across the border last year.
The young refugee was warmly welcomed by the family in the village of Tongo Gandima. But their hospitality came at a price.
“They had a man for me to marry,” Koulsoumi told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, cradling her four-month-old baby, Hamadou.
“I was not happy but the family took me in … what choice did I have?” she said, adding that her 18-year-old husband was abusive and violent, and disappeared after having sex with her.
Koulsoumi is one of 260,000 refugees – half of whom are children – from Central African Republic living in eastern Cameroon, a region with a population of around one million.
Around six in 10 of these refugees have crossed the border since conflict erupted in 2013, when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, triggering revenge attacks by Christian militias.
Violence has lessened since a February election touted as a step toward reconciliation – France ended its peacekeeping mission in its former colony last week – but outbreaks of fighting are frequent, leaving most refugees afraid to go home.
This influx has strained aid agencies and communities across eastern Cameroon, where more than 90,000 child refugees are out of school, and prey to violence, sexual abuse and early marriage, according to the U.N. children’s agency (UNICEF).
While refugee camps provide free education, most of the refugees – two-thirds – live in villages where they struggle to afford enrolment fees of up to 2,000 CFA francs ($3). Many end up sending their sons to work and forcing their daughters to marry.
Dwindling humanitarian funding for Cameroon, and the prospect of huge waves of arrivals if Central African Republic plunges back into full-blown conflict, are stoking fears among aid agencies for the future of the country’s young refugees.
“This is a forgotten crisis, one that is weighing heaviest on the shoulders of young girls,” said Felicite Tchibindat, UNICEF’s representative for Cameroon. “Protecting them from early marriage, and broken lives full of misery, is a priority.”
GIRLS CAST ASIDE
In a public school in the lush, leafy yet impoverished Gado village, a class of teenage refugees from nearby Gado-Badzere camp shouted and laughed as they discussed early marriage.
“My family wanted me to marry at 14, but I said: ‘No, I’m getting an education'”, yelled one 15-year-old girl, before grinning at the applause and cheers of the mostly male class.
But many young girls in eastern Cameroon, a region where around half of girls under 18 are married, are not so fortunate.
In another school in nearby Abo Boutila, headmistress Sylvie Ndoume sighed as she handed over a register showing only one female student over the age of 14.
“Once girls reach 13 or 14, the parents cast them aside and throw them in the dustbin – that’s it,” Ndoume said. “For some girls, they might be in school, but in their mind, they are just waiting to be taken out and married.”
Many of the refugees are from herding or farming communities and do not value education for their children, aid agencies say. Only around one in eight child refugees in eastern Cameroon have been to school in Central African Republic, according to UNICEF.
In Gado-Badzere – the biggest of the seven camps in eastern Cameroon with 24,000 refugees – 13-year-old Aissatou turned away as she recalled her family’s attitude to school back home.
“My parents didn’t want me to go … I was meant to be married,” she said shyly, covering her face with her shawl.
“But now they see that education is important, and don’t insist that I get married anymore,” added Aissatou, relaxing as she spoke of having learnt to read, write and count in the camp.
NO MONEY MEANS MARRIAGE
The rural region faces a shortage of state teachers, with many preferring to work in cities and a recent government freeze on the recruitment of public sector workers, UNICEF said.
Local parent associations are paying to hire teachers to fill the gap and to alleviate the pressure on those who often have to deal with more than 100 children in crowded classrooms.
But some of the costs are being passed onto parents, and for refugees with very little or no money, a few hundred francs can mean choosing between feeding their children or schooling them.
Mother-of-ten Salamatou Victorine, who lives in Abo Boutila, said although she had married off three of her six girls – aged between 13 and 17 – she hoped that the others – aged 6, 8, and 12 – would be able to stay in school and avoid early marriage.
“But if our money dries up as a family, I will instantly take them out and marry them,” she said. “It is a question of means, I will have no other choice if we are going to get by.”
In the Gado-Badzere camp, hundreds of children in makeshift classrooms recited phrases in French and English, from “Salut” to “How are you?”, and counted in both languages from one to 20.
The level of education across the refugee camps has improved hugely since 2013, according to social worker Salimanu Umarou.
“But these temporary classes in the camps are being overwhelmed with pupils coming back from public schools in the area as their families cannot afford the fees,” Umarou said.
While half of child refugees in camps go to school, only three in 10 of those living in communities do so, UNICEF said.
Aid agencies said a lack of funding is the main obstacle to delivering a range of services from education and healthcare to water and sanitation and psychosocial support across the region.
Cameroon’s humanitarian response plan for 2016 has only been one third funded – $77 million – down from half – $129 million – last year, the U.N.’s Financial Tracking Service (FTS) shows.
Humanitarians say the crisis in the east is being overlooked due to 70,000 Boko Haram refugees from Nigeria in Cameroon’s Far North region, while the government said it was stretched thin by the 350,000 refugees it is hosting across the country.
“These refugees are not just the duty of Cameroon, but the duty of the whole world,” said local member of parliament Antoinette Ngbanbaye, calling for more international aid.
But for many young Central African Republic refugees living in eastern Cameroon, like Koulsoumi, it may already be too late.
“I love my baby so much, he is beautiful,” Koulsoumi said, securing him to her back with a bright yellow and blue shawl. “But because of him, to go to school would be impossible.”