Warning: some readers may find this blog post distressing
As Chemine tenderly straightens two-year-old Esse‚Äôs dress, she is every bit the doting mother. Gentleness, patience and kindness are qualities that Chemine clearly displays, but they were not characteristics that she witnessed much of when growing up.
Chemine spent her early childhood in the community she now lives in, Legbanou ‚Äď around two hours north from Togo‚Äôs capital city, Lom√©. It is a rural community with strong tribal links, evident by the tribal marks that are still clearly visible on Chemine‚Äôs cheeks.
The youngest of eight children to survive from ten siblings, Chemine‚Äôs world began to unravel when she was just two. Her mother became unwell, so Chemine and her four brothers went to live with her grandmother while her three older sisters stayed with their father. When her mother and father then died in quick succession, Chemine was the only one of her siblings to be sent to live with her uncle in Lagos, Nigeria.
‚ÄúI was taken to Lagos, Nigeria. There I was not taken care of at all. I was very unhappy and sad,‚ÄĚ she recalls.
Surviving a violent childhood
At the hands of those who were supposed to be caring for her, she was beaten, neglected and terribly abused. She looks wistfully into the distance trying to recall any happy memories from that time ‚Äď the sad truth is, there simply aren‚Äôt any. She thought of running away on countless occasions, but had no idea how to navigate the 300km back home on her own.
The practice of sending children, and in particular girls, to live with relatives is common in many West African countries, but it‚Äôs desperately hard to identify and stop. It‚Äôs almost impossible to police, because there is no money changing hands and children are moved between family relatives.
When she entered her teenage years, she was sent back home, where she moved in with her father‚Äôs sister. ‚ÄúLife will be really difficult to a young girl like me in my situation. But I was very fortunate at that time to have my auntie who was there for me,‚ÄĚ she says.
Living through assault
Having missed out on virtually all her primary education, Chemine tried to catch up, but she was so far behind, it seemed pointless. In Togo, girls are still discriminated against within the classroom. According to UNICEF, literacy rates among boys run at around 87%, while for girls it‚Äôs just 72%.
It was around this time that she met the father of her child. They only met once, in a nearby town, and Chemine is not keen to relive their encounter. What‚Äôs clear is that when he asked her to visit his home, and there she was raped.
‚ÄúI was not happy at all of this situation because I was not prepared and did not want to have sex with him,‚ÄĚ she recalls with sadness. ‚ÄúThe very worst about all the situation is that I had nobody with whom I could share my worries.‚ÄĚ
Her immediate reaction was to try and forget the assault ever happened. Filled with horror and shame, she returned home and told no one.
Statistics on the number of women in Togo who are assaulted are not available, but Human Rights research and UN papers all assert that survivors are reluctant to report incidents due to the social stigma and fear of reprisal. On a national level, the Togolese government has launched several initiatives to improve the situation of women, but it takes time and effort for legal text to make a difference to the lives of women on the ground.
Chemine got on with life, trying to keep the¬†assault out of her mind. But her aunt started to notice changes in her niece. Chemine might have wanted to forget the situation ever occurred, but her aunt was insistent that she visit the clinic and have a pregnancy test.
‚ÄúWhen I realised that I was pregnant, I was very scared, sad and I have even planned to get rid of the pregnancy,‚ÄĚ she says with regret. ‚ÄúAt that very time, my auntie too discovered that I was pregnant.‚ÄĚ
Chemine didn‚Äôt want to be pregnant, she didn‚Äôt want a baby and she didn‚Äôt want to be reminded of her ordeal again and again. Perhaps the worst part of the situation was the gossip that began to circulate within the community ‚Äď the sideways glances, the comments and the open judgement that she felt was heaped upon her.
Fight for survival
But if there was anything that Chemine‚Äôs upbringing had taught her, it was to be tough. When she saw her child on the ultrasound for the first time, she knew she had a reason to live. Regardless of the judgement, she was determined to raise a healthy and happy child.
Chemine‚Äôs daughter was born without complication in a local clinic. In many respects, Chemine was fortunate. 17% of all babies in Togo are born to mothers under the age of 18 and adolescent mothers face higher risks of eclampsia, puerperal endometritis and systemic infections than women in their twenties and thirties. The social and psychological pressure on teenage mothers, can also be considerable.
For Chemine, the moment of her daughter‚Äôs birth is perhaps one of the few moments of joy that she can remember. So joyful in fact that she named her daughter Esse, meaning ‚ÄėGod has answered my prayers‚Äô. ‚ÄúWhen I returned home with my child, I was no longer sad but rather happy. My daughter became the joy of my life,‚ÄĚ she beams. But the next challenge was to come.
The local church in action
Chemine‚Äôs determination to raise her daughter with a hopeful future was clear, but the resources to do that were simply not there. Chemine and her aunt live in an orderly mud hut roughly the size of the average living room in the UK. There is no income to speak of at all. The small family are subsistence farmers, living on a hand-to-mouth basis. They try and earn a little income by selling any surplus produce within the community, but it never amounts to much.
When life is this basic there is no space to consider healthcare, nutrition or even emotional welfare ‚Äď all the things that are vital in securing the future development and well-being of a small child.
It was within this context that the Child Survival implementer from the Evangelical Church of the Christian Mission in Legbanou found Chemine. Esse was just two months old at the time, and Chemine a lonely single mother. In Togo, women bear the major responsibility for raising their families and while 60% of families with children under the age of 15 are headed by women, Chemine still felt alone.
You can support¬†a mum like Chemine by giving to Compassion UK‚Äôs Different Path Appeal. Give before 24 June 2019 and your donation will be doubled by the UK government.
Esse has now moved from Compassion‚Äôs Child Survival project into the Child Sponsorship Programme and as Chemine talks about the impact Compassion has had, her voice brightens.
‚ÄúThe first time the implementer came to meet with me, I was very happy because as I knew that they help people,‚ÄĚ she smiles. ‚ÄúThe project takes care of my child‚Äôs health and mine too. They pay all the bills when we go to hospital and buy all the medicine prescribed by the doctors. They also assist us with food kits and hygiene kits every month.‚ÄĚ
The basic provisions brought each month are clearly a huge blessing to a family. They no longer have to choose between eating well and visiting the doctor. With her bright, clear eyes and chubby cheeks, Esse is the picture of health ‚Äď evidence of the difference the project has made.
The project has helped Chemine to look ahead to the future and beyond the daily need to survive. ‚ÄúThe main benefit is that when I stopped school because of pregnancy I told them I wanted to go back to school and they paid for everything ‚Äď my school fees and my school items.‚ÄĚ
For much of her life Chemine has been alone ‚Äď sent to live with distant relatives, neglected by those who should have cared for her and abandoned completely by the father of her child. However, at the Compassion project she has, for the first time in her life, made real friends.
‚ÄúWe are taught lessons on the project about how to take care of our children, how to live in hygienic conditions in order to prevent sicknesses. I have friends and especially there is also one young lady in the same situation like me,‚ÄĚ she says with the hint of a smile. ‚ÄúWithout the help of Compassion, life would be very difficult for me.‚ÄĚ
Chemine never had the love of her own mother, but with the help of the Compassion team she has learned to take good care of Esse and herself. Life is tough for women on their own in Togo, but Chemine has the confidence to build a life on her own and has no plans to get married any time soon.
She is focused on being the best mother that she can to her beautiful little girl. ‚ÄúThe main benefit I have gained is when they provided me with¬†everything to enable me to restart school again after giving birth to my child. I hope that the life of my daughter will be better than mine,‚ÄĚ she says resolutely. ‚ÄúMy prayer is to be a good mother to my child.‚ÄĚ
With support from Compassion, Chemine is ensuring that her child will have a different path in life. She takes great comfort in knowing that she doesn‚Äôt have to walk the journey alone.
You can support the next mum like Chemine by donating to our Different Path Appeal.
Save the lives of vulnerable mothers and babies in Togo by supporting Compassion UK‚Äôs¬†Different Path Appeal. Give before 24 June 2019 and your donation will be doubled by¬†the UK government so we will be able to support even more mothers and babies.
Donations made to Compassion UK‚Äôs Different Path Appeal will be used to help mothers and babies in Togo access life-saving support. This includes; health screenings, medical advice, hygiene supplies, nutritional supplements and education that will help secure a healthy future for them and their families.