ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast – A high-pitched wailing noise comes from the living room, and Neme Innocente turns on her bare heels, panicked, as she races across the dusty courtyard. “He’s supposed to be sleeping,” she says. “I just need to check … ”
The 13-year-old stops mid-sentence and covers her face with her hands, embarrassed. It turns out the screech was coming from the TV, an episode of The Voice playing at full volume. Nearby, 18-month-old Royann lies silent on his knitted blanket on the floor.
“It’s just a bit stressful sometimes,” Neme says, after she’s checked the infant’s breathing. “Having a baby is a lot of responsibility, like, sometimes I want to go out with my friends and walk around the village, but instead I have to stay in. He needs me.”
Neme isn’t Royann’s mother, she’s his aunt. But she spends almost half of every day with him in the family’s one-bedroom house in Bingerville on the eastern outskirts of Abidjan, Ivory Coast, feeding him formula, changing his nappy and tickling his toes to make him squeal. Neme does this six mornings a week, unpaid, so that Royann’s mother, her 17-year-old stepsister Tatiana, can attend school.
When Tatiana comes home at lunchtime, it’s Neme’s turn to go to class for the afternoon.
“If Tatiana can’t go to school, then she’ll be stuck at home all day, every day,” Neme says. “And she’ll never be able to be a police officer.”
The sisters are part of a group of girls in the village of Bingerville who have banded together to take a split-shift approach to schooling and childcare that ensures their friends’ pregnancies don’t spell the end of their education.
UNICEF data from 2012 shows that almost a third of women in the Ivory Coast aged between 20 and 24 had given birth at least once before the age of 18, and approximately 75 percent of girls don’t attend secondary school – a figure that is even higher in rural and suburban communities like Tatiana and Neme’s hometown.
Nevertheless, there are signs of improvement. The policy of splitting the day into two shifts was initially designed to cope with the rising number of enrolled students – more than 3,500 at last count. It’s an approach being taken across the country to handle overcrowding in schools.
But when the sisters went to the school administration to ask for permission to split the day between them so they could also share childcare responsibilities, the school agreed.
As head teacher of College Moderne de Bingerville since 2012, Mariam Djara has seen the number of schoolgirls who have children decrease in the past five years – a sign, perhaps, that various programs the government has launched in accordance with the UNFPA and the French Muskoka Fund to promote abstinence and contraception are working.
But for those who do get pregnant, the school shift system means dropping out is no longer their only option. “The number of those who get pregnant and continue attending classes is on the up,” she says.
A Sister’s Support
Although she’d heard about how a group of her classmates were helping each other raise their children and stay in school, Neme never expected to have to join it herself. When she first heard that her stepsister was pregnant, she was so shocked she couldn’t swallow the rice and chicken sauce they were eating for dinner.
“But then I thought, ‘She’s my sister, and I need to share this with her.’ She shouldn’t be alone.” The girls’ parents were quick to agree. Both work full-time, with no time to raise another child. The idea that Royann’s father, a lanky 22-year-old called Oscar who works in construction and who had been secretly dating Tatiana since she was 13, might step in to provide support was never raised. Everyone agrees he needs to prioritize his work, so he occasionally stops by at weekends to bounce his son on his knee.
Tatiana is grateful for her younger sister’s support. Her primary concern upon discovering her pregnancy had been letting down her birth mother, who is sick and lives on the other side of town.
“She has diabetes so she can’t work, but she always had these really big dreams for me. I needed to think about how I could still achieve those dreams while having a child at the same time.” Tatiana stares at her hands. “I had to work out a way to stay in school.” If it wasn’t for Neme, she isn’t sure what she would have done.
Determined to Learn
Not all the girls in the village are lucky enough to have that kind of support. Maryam Doukoure used to want to be a pharmacist when she grew up, but when she fell pregnant at 17, she didn’t want to ask her friends for help. “I guess I was ashamed a little bit,” she says.
Now she works at a stall selling sweets and biscuits outside the gates of her former school. Her four-year-old daughter was due to start school last September, but Maryam couldn’t afford the cost of the uniform or fees.
“When I hear about other girls helping each other out, I wish I had thought of that. Instead, it took me many months to realize that being a single mother didn’t mean I had to do things on my own.” By then, she’d been out of school for four months and felt it was too late to return.
Tatiana estimates that she missed five weeks of school following the birth of her son. “But I carried on attending right until I went into labor,” she says proudly.
Thanks to Neme, her grades haven’t suffered since she went back. “The hardest thing about all of this is leaving Royann with my sister every morning … I run down the road at lunchtime because I can’t wait to get home,” she says. “But I have to trust he’ll be OK with her, and that this is worth it.”
As for Neme, babysitting Royann has taught her one thing: She doesn’t want children of her own for at least a decade.
“I do like playing with him,” she says. “But I like it most of all when Tatiana comes home and I get to give him back.”