Cameroon steps toward gender equality

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International Women’s Day is truly a celebration in Cameroon. Sherry Stevenson, a Cuso International volunteer who worked in Cameroon, reflects on her work as a gender advisor in the African nation.

 

Women, and even some men, march down the commercial street in Bamenda, a city in the northwest region. Preparations start weeks in advance. The women make dresses out of the same fabric so they parade together in a uniform sea of blue and pink. There’s no harvesting on family farms, no cooking and no cleaning. Instead, women relax in pubs and celebrate with friends.

“They actually make it like a holiday,” says Sherry Stevenson, a Cuso International volunteer who worked in Cameroon as an organizational development advisor from 2009 to 2010.

March 8this the one day when Cameroonian women can take the day off. For the other 364 days, they are expected to look after their families and do household chores. Rural villages in particular are still very traditional, notes Stevenson. Girls are married as young as 15, and are expected to prepare meals, attend to her husband, and take care of the children. Strict gender roles mean the men go to work while the women stay at home.

So when civil society organizations in Cameroon requested workshops on human rights and gender equality, Stevenson was happy to kick into gear.

She organized several workshops for representatives from the North West Association of Development Organizations. More than 40 civil society organizations in Cameroonare part of the NWADO network. Members meet at least once a month for events or to collaborate on proposals.

Workshops create plans for action

In Stevenson’s workshop on human rights and rights-based approaches to development, she used role plays to encourage the members to apply their new knowledge about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to everyday situations. The NWADO members created their own scenarios to play out, and discussed different ways to inform local Cameroonians about their rights.

“You can see that it’s them working through the problems, that it’s them putting the puzzle together,” she says.

One scenario in particular caught Stevenson’s attention. It was inspired by a common issue among Cameroon’s women – widowhood rights. If a woman’s husband died, tradition dictated that she would lose all her rights to property and even her children. Widows were obligated to undergo extensive mourning rites, which often included isolation from her community. In some cases, she would be forced to marry a brother-in-law or other relative, says Stevenson.

Working in groups, members recreated the situation, playing human rights activists and other civil society organization members. They practiced talking to widows about their rights and directing them to support services.

At the end of each workshop, Stevenson asked members to create an action plan outlining their next steps with what they had learned. Many returned to their organizations to teach the rest of their staff about the different bodies in Cameroonwhere people could go in case of human rights violations.

Seeing results

One woman with a particular interest in gender equality drew inspiration from the workshops, and went on to share her knowledge with the wider community.

“There was this transition of her slowly taking on that leadership role,” Stevenson remembers. “It was hard at first. She was really shy, but she slowly gained more knowledge and started facilitating her own gender workshops.”

Women were not the only ones who benefited from the workshops. One local government official said the discussions on gender equality made him think about all the work his wife was doing around the house and on the family farm. At a follow-up meeting, he shared how his awareness of human rights had changed his relationship with his wife.

On the weekends, he and his wife would walk to the fields together. The official would enjoy a drink with his friends at the nearby pub while he waited for his wife to return from collecting the harvest. After attending the training session on gender equality, the official adjusted his weekend routine.

Instead of waiting in the pub, he surprised his wife by meeting her in the middle of the field. He harvested half of the field with her so they could both return home earlier than usual.

“Now I’m sweeping in the morning and helping with things, and I love my wife even more now because we have more time together,” the official shared with the NWADO staff.

Nearly three years later, the story has stuck with Stevenson. “This is a local government person who can influence the community, so I felt like there might be a ripple effect,” she says.

“Change takes time”

While these are the stories that development advisors hope for, progress can be slow. Gender roles in particular have deep traditional roots, which are unlikely to change overnight.

“You see so much that can be done, but change takes so much time. So it was like just a little drop in the sea,” says Stevenson.

As a facilitator, she had to let the locals work at their own pace. Organizations like Cuso International and NWADO bring people together and start the conversation.

The rest is up to the representatives who attend the workshops and training sessions to take what they learn and pass it on to their beneficiaries. 

Yet Stevenson maintains an optimistic outlook on gender equality in Cameroon. She says when people are more exposed to the ideas, change will happen.

Written by Veronica Tang