Rachel Tarh (not her real name) is four months pregnant. She is from the English-speaking north-west region of Cameroon, but lives on the outskirts of Douala, the largest city. Along with her family, she was displaced by conflict between separatist rebels and government forces.
When Cameroon implemented Covid-19 restrictions in March, Tarh’s school was closed along with all the others. So she started working with her mother, selling meat in the market. She met a customer she liked, and became sexually involved with him. Now she’s pregnant.
“I have been crying since then, I am always locked up in the house. My parents too are not happy with
what I have done,” said Tarh. The father has refused to take any responsibility, and she’s scared for her future.
“It’s hard for me to continue this business, it brings back memories of the days I used to go out and sell, and the promises the father of my unborn child made to me. I equally wonder if my mother can trust any of my younger ones to go out and sell. Most of our customers are men who drink in bars, at times I tried to be nice to them so they would buy from me. That is where I met the father of my baby,” she said.
It is unlikely that Tarh will return to school. “All of us used to go to school, my parents farmed for us to go to school. My mother said whatever I made as profit from the meat I sold would help me go back to school. Now my parents have to worry about me and my baby.”
Rachel’s first visit to the hospital for antenatal care was a week ago. The floods and the rains have made things worse: the roads leading to their neighbourhood are inaccessible. She was only able to afford the journey and the medical care thanks to support from two local non-governmental organisations, the Rahel Randy Foundation and Rural Doctors.
The double crisis
Tarh’s story is not unique. She is one of many young women whose lives have been impacted by not one but two crises: Covid-19 and the ongoing conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. In Douala, the worsening economy and the closure of schools has forced many young women — already trying to recover from being displaced — to turn to sex work to make ends meet, or made them vulnerable to exploitative men.
This has led to a surge in teenage pregnancies, according to the Rahel Randy Foundation, which focuses on uplifting underprivileged and orphaned girls. Ten of the 50 young women they work with have become pregnant during the pandemic. Of these, most do not have access to maternal healthcare, and suffer from familial stigma.
“Most parents fear to open up on or report these cases,” said Rahel Randy, the head of the foundation. “This ends up affecting the girl child negatively. Many times, they drop out of school, and some end up as single child mothers who head families.”
According to the United Nations Children’s Agency, maternal mortality in Cameroon is among the highest in the world at 596 deaths per 100 000 births.