It should be a proud day for any family. Each December in Cameroon, parents collect their children’s primary school report cards, showing each pupil’s grades for first term exams. In a coastal town in the south of the country, Peter* looked forward to collecting report cards for his four children.
When he arrived, he found that his children were among 100 pupils to be refused certificates. According to the head teacher, it was not the students, but the parents, who were to blame – they had failed to pay fees to the school’s parent teacher association. Despite a law that clearly makes these payments voluntary, the head teacher was demanding 5,000 Central African Francs (US$10) per child before he would hand over the certificate.
Panic in the crowd was growing. This is a fishing and mining community, where poverty is high and families struggle to survive on tight budgets. Yet without the report cards, the children would not be able to progress into the next school term.
Sadly, the scene is not unique. “Children in Cameroon are often punished or expelled because their families can’t afford these association fees,” says Hulloge Touko, who works at our legal advice centre in the country. “It’s a big problem when head teachers decide on an amount arbitrarily, and some even siphon off a portion into their own pockets. Of course parents know it’s illegal, but given the risks to their child’s future, they feel they have no choice but to pay.”
But as this story shows, things are starting to change. Peter, who works at a local radio station, had heard about our campaign on speaking out against enforced association fees. Throughout 2012, we held public meetings and radio discussions encouraging parents to report illegal demands for payment to local education officials, and explaining how we could support them if their reports were ignored.
Inspired by the campaign, Peter reported the demand to the education authorities. When he received no response, he turned to our legal advice centre for support. On his behalf, we contacted the Ministry of Education, which in turn approached the regional inspector general with the case. Responding quickly, the inspector instructed the school head teacher to issue all the report cards unconditionally and immediately. Soon after, Peter and fellow parents had their children’s report cards in their hands.
“The head teacher will be disciplined,” says Hulloge, “but changing one school isn’t enough – we want to stamp out these illegal fees for good. We’ve started a petition calling on the government to take action, and already more than 3,000 people have added their signature. These thousands of people have spoken out clearly against these crippling charges. When we present the petition and our research to parliament, we’ll make sure their voices are heard.”
*Name has been changed.