When our team — UNICEF Chad’s Education colleagues, the Ministry of Education and partners — was leaving Sido Bemadji primary school in the Moyen Chari province, we learned that someone from the school’s Mothers Association had been waiting to talk to us. I hesitated for a second as we were already late. I looked at the person and there she was, Khadidja, 40, a proud woman dressed in a white hijab, with a big smile on her face.
Khadidja, a mother of nine children, seemed excited to tell her story. “I am the secretary of the school’s Mothers Association. I can tell you more about our work as a Mothers Association to support children’s education.” Then she added: “I am also a refugee from the Central African Republic (CAR). I left my home in Bangassou in southeastern CAR and arrived in Chad in 2013.”
I told her that I had been to Bangassou and that I remembered the beautiful sunset over the Mbomou River. She was surprised but happy to see a foreigner who knew the hometown she left in search of security.
Once the conflict began, everything was burnt to the ground including my house.
Recalling painful memories, she could not completely hide signs of distress.
Khadidja has been energetically involved in activities supported by UNICEF to empower Mothers Associations. “During training sessions organized for Mothers Associations, I learned about the strong links between girls’ education and puberty, school hygiene, child marriage and unwanted pregnancy.”
After the training, she started playing a key role in training adolescent girls on how to use hygiene kits. But it required additional effort in the beginning. “In the Arabo-Muslim culture I grew up with, we are not supposed to discuss about physical or physiological changes of girls in public. On the first day of the training, I was too embarrassed to openly bring up the subject before girls and their parents. But I soon realized that if I do not change my attitude, many of the girls would not understand the subject correctly and would continue missing classes during their periods and eventually drop out of school. So, I decided to be more courageous from the next day. Following the training and distribution of reusable hygiene kits, more girls stayed in school throughout each month. Some who had left school came back to attend classes again.”
Additionally, Khadidja has been fighting to prevent girls from leaving school due to early marriage. “My parents married me off when I was 14. Since then, each day has been filled with adult responsibilities such as childbirth and caring for family members. My childhood dream ended with marriage. My first daughter is 18 but she just enrolled for the first year of middle school as she missed out on school during the conflict and displacements. But I never wanted her to choose marriage over education.”
Curious about the source of her passion and dedication towards education, I asked her why it held such an important place in her heart. She raised her head and looked me straight in the eyes.
Look at you. Without education, would you have been able to do what you are doing as a UNICEF staff member? I want the same for our children. I want them to set higher goals and realize their full potential through education.
When asked about her childhood dream, Khadidja started to giggle. “When I was a girl, I always wanted to become a journalist. I felt happy imagining myself speaking on the radio or being on the television. Although my own dream could not come true, I am thankful that I have the strength to contribute to children’s education and help them realize their dreams through my role in the Mothers Association.”
Since 2013, about 150,000 Central African refugees and Chadian returnees have fled violence in CAR and settled in border provinces in southern Chad. With support from Education Cannot Wait (ECW) and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Ministry of Education, UNICEF and partners like RET International and CELIAF have been working together to assist schools in expanding access to, and improving the quality of education for all children affected by conflict.
Yera Kim is Education Specialist at UNICEF Chad.