Violence against women is a public plague no one can live with and early and forced marriage remains the main challenge in Cameroon. The road ahead is a long one but with the force of women’s activism we can get there, says Aîssa Ngatansou Doumara.
Read this article in French.
One afternoon in 2011, a little girl was attracted into a shop in a market in a town in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon. A man held her at knife point and obliged her to have sex with him. This happened to the girl several times over the course of several months without anybody knowing. It was the girl’s mother who eventually discovered the situation because of the strange attitude of her child. She tried to get her daughter to reveal what had happened with no success. It was only when the girl was taken to the Centre of Women’s Life, an outreach centre run by the Association to Combat Violence against Women and Girls (ALVF) which provides one-to-one support for victims of violence, that the care worker succeeded in getting her to talk. What they heard was awful. The crazy shop-keeper had covered the child’s private parts with a strange powder, put on a pornographic video and obliged the child to conduct horrific sexual acts.
The victim has received full counselling and the aggressor has been denounced and taken to a tribunal. Meanwhile, the story of this little girl, aged just 12 years old, caused a huge emotional stir in the region. People were shocked and disgusted; they thought how could this happen here? The story was among many stories broadcast as part of regional coverage of the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence campaign in 2011.
16 Days is a global campaign which takes place each year to mark the 16 days between 25 November (the Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women) and 10 December (Human Rights Day). The history of grass-roots activism to eradicate violence against women and girls in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon is deeply linked to the campaign. For us it signifies an opportunity to reach out to people with the testimonies of victims of gender violence and inspire them to action.
Some situations of violence that girls face in the North East Region of Cameroon are more subtle than what happened to this little girl, such as the denial of educational rights to girls or early and forced marriage, as I have discussed elsewhere on openDemocracy. If we want girls to live in ‘peace in the home and peace in the world’ then we must leave no stone unturned.
Each year since 1997, ALVF and our allies have launched far-reaching advocacy campaigns on violence against women and girls over the course of the 16 days, convincing the sceptics of the real threat that violence poses to the lives of women and girls. As a community we’ve sought to involve more people in our actions of prevention and to recall the importance of continuing the fight for this question of basic human dignity. Each year, our strategy changes to respond to local needs and each year our actions have more and more of an impact.
Our first period of engagement took place between 1997 and 2005. There was huge ignorance about the kinds of violence girls and women were facing so we set out to educate people, holding open door sessions, training sessions and talks. We focused on the most pressing issues in our community, drawn from our work at our monitoring groups and listening centres. They were: early and forced marriages, the under-education of girls, female circumcision and infection with STIs and HIV/AIDs. We still refer to this as the ‘demystification’ phase where we sought to shatter the taboo around the question.
During the 16 days, we always invite women, men and traditional and religious leaders to events where we get together to analyse the environment, origins, causes and consequences of the problem of gender violence. Following these events, the levels of attendance at our Centres for Women’s Life always rise exponentially. At the same time, debates spring up in public places on the situation of women and girls and gender based violence, including at markets, women’s meetings and in spoken and written media.
In 2006 and 2007 we stepped up our work in local schools, aware that in order to combat violence against girls and women in the long-term we need to invest in the next generation. We were also aware that we needed to make girls aware of their own rights. During our workshops, it was heart-breaking to see the regularity with which we heard young children say, in all naivety, “oh yes, my parents are going to marry me during the holidays” or “I’m only going to take my primary school exam because it’s pointless to take the secondary entrance exam, my daddy told me that I’m not going back to school after the summer holidays.”
The period from 2008 to today has marked a new phase in our activism. We’ve moved beyond workshops to involving primary school students in acts of denunciation and awareness raising, both among their parents and peers. In 2009, for example, we held public ceremonies at schools where boys and girls denounced violence against women and girls before their parents and town authorities.
In 2010, ALVF held a writing competition on the theme of ‘early and forced marriage’ in partnership with our allies: the denunciation brigades (activists on the ground who intervene to protect girls’ rights), teachers, regional authorities and the Minister for Primary Education. 60 students aged between 9 and 12 took part from 15 schools in the six principle towns of the region: Maroua, Mokolo, Mora, Kousseri, Yagoua and Kaélé.
The students were invited to write a letter to ‘Papa Wang’, an imaginary father who had decided to marry his daughter in the middle of her second year at school. One of the candidates said, “Papa Wang, don’t marry off your daughter, let her study to find a job because when you’re old she’ll be able to look after you”. Another said, “Papa Wang, if you send your daughter to get married she risks dying during child birth because she is still very little to carry a baby”, another, “early and forced marriage is bad for your daughter because she can no longer play with her friends”. The best copies were printed on calendars for the year 2010. The reflections of the children were so pertinent and so sincere that we decided to use their messages as an argument during advocacy with parents and local authorities; we demanded that they listen to these children and take strong measures to discourage stubborn parents who still participate in this dated and destructive practice.
In 2011 we used the creation of a ‘peace quilt’ to mobilise parents, children and their teachers. More than 400 people took part, making a representation, imagined or written, of what they understood by the word ‘peace’. The theme of last year’s campaign was the same as this year: From peace in the home to peace in the world: challenging militarism and ending violence against women. Among some of the messages were personal appeals such as “take care of children when they are ill”, “raise parents’ salaries”, “avoid divorce” , “share work between boys and girls”; also “stop sexual harassment”, “stop hitting”, “the right to education” and “give all children birth certificates”. Among the pictures were drawings of "an educated woman", hearts, homes and trees.
This year, our advocacy is again focused on early and forced marriage as well as other types of violence, as sadly forced marriage remains the main challenge facing girls in our region. We’ll be hosting events on the outskirts of the town of Maroua and in lots of other villages and towns in the Extreme North Region. We’ve also organised live radio debates with experts giving their views on the situation alongside victims who have agreed to tell their stories of survival. More organisations than ever, especially those led by women, have joined in the fight against gender violence. Our principle challenge is intensifying our educational work to realise a tangible change in behaviour towards girls and women. We won’t stop until everyone adopts the slogan, “zero tolerance to all forms of violence against girls and women in all spaces” and joins us in fighting for a better world without violence of any nature, where women and men live together in full equality and in mutual respect.
The road ahead is long, but we’ve seen over the course of several years how intensive communication around violence against girls and women contributes to modifying the behaviour of the population in a perceptible way. It also changes the way in which the authorities respond to the rights of girls, most notably those in charge of political and strategic decision-making. The commemoration of the 16 Days campaign by the Cameroonian government since 2009 testifies to such a change, and to the effectiveness of women’s activism.
Yet there is still ground to cover to incite politicians into more concrete action. Whilst each actor must play their role in the fight against violence against girls and women, it is ultimately the State that has the coercive power to oblige people to conform to the law. What we need is a comprehensive and operational national strategy to combat violence against women and girls, one that responds to both prevention and response needs. We’re also calling on the Government to issue precise intervention procedures which include standards to be used by all actors involved in prevention or response work.
It’s time that those who govern us recognise violence against women for what it is, a public plague that none of us can live with, something intolerable. All girls and women have the right to a secure environment, and all kids deserve a future free from violence.
This article was translated from the French original by Jennifer Allsopp.
Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence.