In Cameroon, girl children are prey. Violent perpetrators lure at home, on their way to school, at school and on their way back home from school. Strangers, fellow students, parents, and husbands all pose a threat.
Marthe Wandou, 2021 laureate of the Right Livelihood award, is a human rights activist fighting for the rights and dignity of vulnerable people in the far north of her country. Since 1998, she runs the organisation ALDEPA (Action Locale pour un Développement Participatif et Autogéré), a non-profit NGO.
The well-being of young girls is at risk due to poverty, lack of education, and ongoing conflict with Boko Haram. Parents struggling to provide for their family’s basic needs often means that children must work or are forced to marry young. It also happens that families resort to selling their daughters into forced marriage or sexual exploitation to make ends meet.
A lack of education also contributes to the challenges. Girls without access to education are more vulnerable to early marriage, sexual exploitation, and trafficking. To help girls protect themselves and their future, education is key.
Mme Wandou and her team, address these issues through targeted interventions to help protect vulnerable girls and promote their well-being. Education is at the core.
The ongoing conflict with Boko Haram has further increased the risks faced by girls in the far north of Cameroon. Girl children risk being abducted and used as suicide bombers or forced wives. The group also targets schools, making it difficult for girls to access education.
- Last year, 736 000 children between 5-7 years were not registered to school. Moreover, many children lack a birth certificate. Not having one means that you cannot access school at all.
Another threat to education is marriage:
- Almost 40 % of adolescents in Cameroon are married before turning eighteen. 13 % of these are married before turning fifteen. 60 % of these are from the Far North.
ALDEPA focuses on education:
- Education is a strong pillar for social transformation, Wandou says. It empowers people to become effective and productive members of society.
Her team works to teach children about their rights so that they know how to claim them and how to report should their rights be violated.
Teaching children about rights is not a given. One of the challenges talking to children in Cameroon is that the word « right » does not exit in the many local languages.
- Instead of talking about rights, we talk about specific situations. We talk about what the children feel for example when somebody hits them, says Wandou. They instinctively feel that this is not right.
To make change happen, the team works with a variety of stakeholders at all levels: teachers, magistrates, police, traditional and religious leader, teachers and parents, child protection committees, adolescent clubs, young and women leaders.
- Je mets mes pieds partout; “I put my feet everywhere”, says Wandou. It is about being everywhere, talking to people.
To sensitise others is an important part of the work and a key strategy. So is hands-on training. Sensitising adults is not a given though. It takes patience, strategy and grit.
- To support this work, we develop simple and concrete materials, says Wandou, and shows examples of posters, leaflets and other print materials that the team uses in dialogue with different stakeholders. We also broadcast key messages through radio in local languages.
Parents get to study posters that share what it means to be a good parent.
Mme. Wandou and ALDEPA now also includes healing of children in their activities.
- Healing is often not addressed and children are let alone to deal with their traumas. We talk about impacts of violence against children on their lives everywhere.
ALDEPA offers support to victims and their families.
- One of our key projects right now is to build a mental health, trauma healing and training centre.
Wandou continues her tireless fight for the dignity of children in Cameroon. Right now, she focuses on building community libraries and mobile libraries in which children can have access to schoolbooks.
Another project that the team has started to undertake, and which has become increasingly urgent is introducing knowledge about climate change impacts.
Read more Marthe here.