Focusing on Women for a Change in Cameroon
Interview with founder of WFAC Cameroon, Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo, June 2012
By Shannon Miller, as part of the Student Writers Project
Cameroonian activist Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo defines herself as “a writer, social networker, digital storyteller, gender professional, and citizen journalist.”
Zoneziwoh was born and raised in the capital city of Douala, in the west of Cameroon.
Her work covers issues on young people’s sexuality and sexual rights, personal development, and violence in their communities. She has also produced documentaries on women in post-conflict Cameroon, and of tea-workers leading the flight for social justice.
Zoneziwoh holds a BSc in Environmental Science from the University of Buea, Cameroon. She is the founder of Women for A Change Caneroon (WFAC), a grassroots women’s rights organisation based at the university.
Shannon Miller, Safeworld student writer, spoke with Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo about her work and inspirations.
Discrimination, Abuse and Violence
Please tell us briefly of the challenges Cameroonian women are facing in their communities.
Women in Cameroon continue to face widespread discrimination and violence.
Each day, I must hear of at least one woman who died giving life.
Women lag behind men in education, and in decent jobs. For instance, there has never been a female governor in Cameroon. Women hold far fewer policy-making roles. And they continue to lack sufficient access to reproductive health services and finances.
Have you come across the practice of breast ironing in Cameroon?
Breast ironing is practised mostly in the rural parts of Cameroon. And this is particular to certain ethnic clans in the northwest region. Interestingly, even where I come from, they practise it.
During a visit to my village, I overheard my grand aunties talking about a little cousin of mine; how she was growing too fast and that her breast is “sprouting out too fast”. And guess who was giving them advice to “flatten” the breasts by ironing them?
I could not help myself; immediately, I asked them whether it was my cousin’s making for her breast to sprout, or was it something natural? The people who sometimes encourage the idea of breast ironing are mothers themselves. Since mothers always want the best for their children, they embark on this practice with the intention of protecting their daughters from male sexual advancement.
The same connotation holds for forced marriages. In many and different forms – you may agree with me, the hegemonic concept of manhood continues to oppress the feminine.
What are the other issues that affect girls most? Are there many cases of forced marriages?
I am not very informed on the subject of forced marriage and have not investigated to find out more, but have heard stories about it happening in the northern region of Cameroon, which is predominantly Muslim.
But I do know of child trafficking. It is something which I have witnessed, especially where people have taken children under the canopy of domestic workers and exploiting them.
'What Can You Do? You are Just a Woman.'
Why the decision to become involved in promoting women’s rights?
Initially, I had no intention of becoming a women’s rights advocate. I was just concentrating on my work – doing all I could to let my voice be heard, and exploring ways in which I could contribute to my community.
I have received discouraging comments from male friends saying, “What can you do? You are just a woman,” or “Sciences are not for women”, etc. but I do not pay much attention to the remarks.
My awakening begin when I started doing Zoneziwohshow, a television show. I realised that women’s voices were absent. Even when issues about young people were being discussed, there was a lack of focus on young women and their needs.
This realisation spurred me to focus on women in order to help give them a voice.
What is the “Zoneziwohshow” about?
The Zoneziwohshow is now called African Women Under 30. The show started off as a talk show discussing real life events that affects young people and experts are invited to the show to discuss, and help address particular problems.
Unfortunately, the Zoneziwohshow did not last long because the media outlet who I partnered with complained that the show lacked finance, or the television station proprietor did not like the quality, etc. The show was later hosted online, but the videos uploaded were showing previously aired episodes.
Finally, the idea came to change the Zoneziwohshow to African Women Under 30. It rewrites and documents stories about women, and highlighting the solutions they bring to their community.
What made you decide to venture into filmmaking?
I realised that people are more receptive towards moving images. Motion pictures are also able to convey messages in a more effective way.
The message in a five- pages long essay, can be told to audiences in just three or five minutes through motion pictures, making it more interesting too. This is why I decided to use digital sources to support my work, and to tell stories of women.
Through filmmaking, I am able to raise specific issue faced by women to help raise awareness.
The film I made on the tea-workers crisis was a success story and it proves that the venture was well worth it.
What are the reasons for creating Women For A Change Caneroon (WFAC)? What do you plan to achieve?
After years of working with women’s groups locally, and globally online, I again noticed the absence of young Cameroonian women representation, especially those under 30, in the gender discourse.
They are often ruthlessly suppressed and deprived of their rights. In an effort to close this feminine gap, and to encourage and empower the women to believe in themselves as active agents for change, WFAC Cameroon was created. Members of the group are mainly young female graduates. The organisation aims to:
- Promote and protect the human rights of young women, particularly the university students.
- Enable women to access and enjoy the freedom of information.
- Provide women with skilled trainings on leadership, entrepreneurship and internet technology tools.
WFAC is based at Buea University. Why is it important to involve students, and organise campus-based activities?
The reason for choosing the university milieu is because the Buea community is mostly made out of students.
However, a lot of community-based work in Buea focuses on the larger society in general, and rarely on the students in particular. And yet, these students are central to bringing change in the community.
Given that a university is seen as the “temple of wisdom” that nurtures ethical citizens and outstanding professionals, I thought it is therefore imperative that students, especially the female ones, become part of this global debate for women’s emancipation.
Sex Education is Important
Is there a general lack of sexual education in Cameroon? If yes, can it be improved on?
Definitely. The way our society is structured, sexuality discussion is considered as a private issue: women’s sexual concerns are private and should not be made public. This has made many people become shy to talk about sex and sexual rights in public.
In 2010, we hosted a campaign “Women and the Sustainable Use of Female Condoms: Fighting HIV/AIDS and Gender Based Violence” to raise awareness, and also to commemorate World Health Day.
Repeated sexual education is key to raising the standards of sexual education.
Peer-to-peer education is one of WFAC’s activities for close to two years. This includes a weekly female condom and health education programme, educating the community on the right use of condoms, safe sex negotiation, and sexual rights.
Is the government doing enough to promote safe sexual practises? Is sex education being taught in schools?
Apart from enacting laws to punish perpetrators of sexual crimes, the answer is no.
It is because of the existence of clubs and organisations like WFAC, that awareness programmes on sexual health can be generated. This work is important because it enables advocacy work to carry-on, reaching out to young people.
How does HIV/AIDS affect women in Cameroon? And what is WFAC Cameroon doing to help address this issue?
HIV/AIDS is a frustrating issue to many people and their families. The disease has crippled many households economically, psychologically and emotionally. It has made many newly born children orphans – and many more have had to drop out of schools.
Recently, two newly-infected widows, each with five and three children respectively, approached us for help; we are witnessing how this disease is affecting their children. These children need to go to school, but this cannot be accomplished when their provider – their mother, is physically ill and financially insecure.
So you can imagine the magnitude of this disease, and the impact it has on the community. The consequences on women, children, and the damage done to the family structure is significant.
Our advocacy work at WFAC Cameroon is done through training programmes and seminars. At times, we also refer victims to other regional centers, like women’s empowerment groups, human rights commissions, HIV RTGs (Regional Technical Groups) for further assistance.
Are there any challenges in sustaining WFAC Cameroon?
Yes, there are. They range from personnel to financial sustainability because most of our members are students and young, unemployed women. There is so much more WFAC can achieve, but cannot, because it is solely self-sponsored.
Can you describe WFAC Cameroon’s participation in the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial earlier this month?
The Candlelight Memorial was a touching moment for many. It was the first time something of this magnitude has taken place on campus in the open. Although some were initially frightened in seeing so many groups of people in candlelight, the students were moved by the event and comradeship.
Tell us about your recent film “Bafanji Women Share Their Experience During War” and importantly, what more can be done for these women?
This short film was a part of my assignment for WorldPulse. It features a group of women and their roles in post-conflict situations, reconstructing and rebuilding their lives in the Bafanji, Cameroon after the war. It shows the strength and tenacity of these women in restoring their lives, taking care of their children in the absence of husbands, who may have died either as a result of the war, or have become handicapped.
Based on the conversations in the film, there is an urgency to move-on and to regain normalcy in their lives. But they are unable to, due to the lack of financial means.
They need money to be able to send their children to school, set-up businesses so that they can be financially secure. This would help improve living conditions, reduce poverty and hunger in their community.
You visited a prison recently; what was your experience like and the reasons for the visitation?
The setting of the prison is deplorable and the conditions in which the prisoners are kept in, are depressing and traumatising.
I would say a garbage dump is a little more comfortable than the prison. The inmates smell, how can a fellow human being wear such a scent?
My visit to the prison was primarily to find out the well-being of people in places and situations that are rarely discussed. I also wanted to see if I could tell their stories and to make their voices heard. I was so upset and depressed after the visit.
In the prison, I met a 67 year-old widow. Namondo Alice is in prison because she stood up and defended her rights, over claims by a tenant who said that the land was his. He was a local ruling patriarch. And just like Namondo, the voices of women do not count in the Cameroonian society.
You can see discrimination towards women even in the prison. The women are kept in a tiny one block cell, without space for even an outstretched arm.
What projects are you currently involved in with regards to women’s rights activism?
My work involves empowering women through the use of social and new media, and the use of simple technological tools to create change. This empowers them and helps in making their presence felt, and voices heard by the community.
Currently, I am also working on a project called “Make Mama Visible”. It focuses on aged mothers and aims to spotlight them as athletes and entertainers, and not just as aged women.
Are there other issues you feel passionate about?
Yes, many. My other interests are in the areas of sexual and reproductive health rights, economic empowerment, women’s rights to enjoy accessing and receiving information.
Another area of interest is working with deaf women and girls. I would love to be able to help increase their presence within the community.
Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo is Cameroon correspondent for Safeworld.
She is a member of the Peace and Security Fellowship for African Women and is an African Leadership Center (ALC) alumni. She is also a Peace Ambassador for the Peace Revolution Network.She has written for various media organisations, both locally and internationally, and has a Certification in Citizen Journalism and Digital Story Telling from WorldPulse, USA.
In addition to her BSc in Environmental Science from the University of Buea, she studied Conflict, Security and Development with King’s College London, UK.