“I’ll tell you what we want, what we really, really want”
Pictured from left to right: Erin Williams, IWHC Program Officer; Nancy Makeoh, Women for a Change (WFAC) Community Outreach Manager; Marielle Coutrix, IWHC Program Assistant; and Catherine Ndumbe, WFAC Community Outreach Volunteer
You don’t have to look too hard to find girls in Cameroon taking the famous words of the Spice Girls to heart. On a recent trip to the country, we met girls who were passionate young leaders, not afraid to voice their opinions and fight for their rights. The quote emblazoned on the t-shirt of Nancy Makeoh, Community Outreach Manager for the local organization Women for a Change Cameroon (WFAC), says it all:
If it involves feminism, social justice or equality, count me in!
WFAC is helping to empower girls through a club started three years ago at Summerset Bilingual College, a public secondary school, so that girls could get information about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Because schools in Cameroon are not currently providing high-quality comprehensive sexuality education, WFAC is filling the gap. The club consists of 20 students, mainly girls between the ages of 12 and 19, and focuses on discussions of gender and sexuality.
Nancy’s sister, Victorine, is 16 and has been a member from the beginning and is now one of the club leaders. She and Nancy are laying the foundation of a new generation: a generation of confident, informed, and educated girls. These girls and others like them refuse to settle for traditional roles. They see themselves actively partaking in their communities and their countries, and as a result, the boys in their communities now know what to expect.
When we visited the school, we saw firsthand the effects the club is having on the lives of girls. When one girl mentioned that clothing can cause men to sexually harass them, it was Victorine who objected. In a way normally reserved for adults, she calmly challenged her classmate noting that “violence happens because of men’s mentality, not what women wear.” She affirmed that to promote gender equality you have to address the root cause of discrimination.“It’s all about changing men’s mindsets,” she explained.
For many of the girls, participating in a club like this is the very first time they hear about gender norms and human rights, especially their right to control what happens with their own body. “Women for a Change has built me up and taught me almost everything I know today about my rights as a girl,” said Victorine.
The club teaches its members not only about biology and the basics of sex education, but also about harmful gender norms that threaten their health and safety. WFAC has strengthened the girls’ capacity to question the status quo and acquire the skills they need to negotiate their rights with parents, friends, and partners alike.
Victorine and other girls are creating spaces for themselves and others to speak up and out. When asked, they will tell you loud and clear what they want. They want to continue school, to go to university, and have meaningful careers. They want to marry the partners of their choice and choose when and how many children they want to have. And they are spreading this message. Victorine now goes out into surrounding communities to sensitize community members to the rights of girls. Sometimes she is speaking to crowds made up of mostly men and boys, but she told us she is not afraid.
The club gives these young leaders the resources and information they need to foster change and convince others of the harms of child and early marriage—in a part of the world where 39 percent of girls are married by age 18. But their work doesn’t just focus on this one objective, delaying marriage. They seek to empower girls overall, so that when girls turn 18 they don’t face the same risks they did when they were 14. Rights-based programs are key to transforming girls’ lives by building their self-efficacy—so they can make informed decisions for the rest of their lives.
We left Cameroon with a renewed sense of energy and urgency, in particular to expand access to rights-based programs that provide sexuality education and empower girls. This year, WFAC is planning to expand the club program to seven other secondary schools and add additional sexual rights content, a sure sign that the movement for girls’ rights and sexual and reproductive health is building and going strong.
First Published: International Women’s Health Coalition