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Benin: I want to go to school

©UNICEFBenin/Jean Gontran Hounsounou
Clarisse and her mother

“I want to go to school”

BENIN, April 2006 - This is the story of Clarissa, a little six-year old from Adjido, an impoverished village some 8 kilometers from Zakpota, who wanted to escape the fate of girls in her region: no education, married very young, hard work all their lives to raise their families. It is the story of a little girl who said no, who pleaded with her mother who had told her that she could not attend school because there was no money.

My daughter opened my eyes

It is October 2005. School reopened two weeks ago. Every day, the school children go past Clarissa’s little concession stand. A few of her playmates are among the children dressed in their khaki uniforms. One morning, she goes to her mother and announces, “I want to go to school."

A?ssinou Sininyéssi, a believer in Hëviosso (god of thunder), gently replies, “My child, I fear that will not be possible. I don’t have the money to send you to school." Upset at this rejection, Clarissa pleads with her mother.  A?ssinou tries to comfort her, “Don’t cry. You are a girl, you must remain at home. Only boys go to school." 

Clarissa persists sobbing, “Why can boys go to school and not girls?”

Her mother says simply, “You are still young, you cannot understand. When you are older, you will understand."

Every morning, the little girl insists until one day her mother is touched her daughter’s pleas and borrows the money to send her to school. In early November, Clarissa begins the initiation course for the first year of primary school (CI) at the village school, a ten-minute walk from her stand. Aïssinou Sininyéssi now confesses, “I was in ignorance and my daughter opened my eyes. I now understand many things. Every school day, I see the joy radiating from my daughter’s face when she goes off to school."

“If I could only remain at school forever”

Clarissa’s classroom, built of bamboo, has fifty pupils of whom only 15 are girls. In other words, the situation of girls has room for improvement in this village and Jeannette Ahokpè, the supervisor of the education programme of UNICEF has her work cut out for her. Jeannette covers by motorcycle the ten villages of Zakpota and visits parents to persuade them to enroll their daughters in school. It is true that for many families here school is quite expensive: parents must sew the khaki uniforms and pay for school supplies.

Girls are also considered as workers. Some never attend school at any time during their lives. Others are forced to drop out of school after three years only. Just enough time to learn to read and write. Clarissa, for her part, does not yet have her khaki uniform. The cloth is still at the tailor’s. But she doesn’t care because she is very happy, “How great it would be," she says shyly, “if I could remain in school forever."

You must study hard in order to have a happy life

Clarissa’s mother is today the secretary of a group of women who specialize in the manufacture of cassava flower under a UNICEF micro-credit programme. “The profits that we make," she said, “will enable us to send our children, particularly our daughters, to school. We no longer have the right to keep them at home." Clarissa has three older sisters, all of whom are married, and two older brothers who cultivate the land left by their father, who died five years ago. Today, she is the only girl in the family to have had the opportunity to attend school.

“I want to study so that I would no longer have to live in poverty. If I study hard, I will get a good job and be able to help my mother. That is what the teacher told me," she said. She lives this poverty every day at the school in this arid and impoverished village. “Our life is very difficult," explained little Clarissa. “At recreation time, I have only 25 CFA francs with which to buy my maize porridge. I am sometimes sad."  Her mother hopes that her daughter will not have as hard a life as hers.

Clarissa's mother who at 35 years old but seems twenty years older, worn out by a life of hard work and privations, has a tender look and attitude towards her daughter, "I will fight until my last breath to ensure that my daughter does not have the same life as I have had. She must study hard in order to be happy, not like me."



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