Replacing rites with rights: amplifying the voice of Cameroon's widows

Women living in rural parts of the developing world are disproportionately affected by marginalisation and poverty. In Cameroon, widows in particular suffer the risk of having their land grabbed, destitution, stigma and abuse. VSO works with partner MUSAB in Bamenda, north west Cameroon, to amplify the voices of disadvantaged women through advocacy and helps to facilitate their involvement in decision-making processes.

"I don’t want any other woman to be treated that way."

After Lydia's husband died, she was forced to undergo harmful cultural practices by others in her village. Her head was painfully shaved and she was forced to sleep on the floor for months. "I would get up in the morning and sit with those who came to mourn with me. I could not go out, I could not attend church, it was like you were not your own person," she says.

Lydia's experience is not an isolated case. Widows across parts of Cameroon are forced to stay at home, refused visitors, and in some cases, stripped of all their land and possessions.

Today Lydia Swiri Ndikum is one of 26 community advocates in her village in Chomba, northwest Cameroon. But she has suffered on her journey. She says, "I don't want any other woman to be treated that way. I want this eradicated. Widows should be free to live their lives."

Changing attitudes to eradicate harmful practices

Since 2008, VSO has worked in partnership with the Muslim Students' Association of Bamenda (MUSAB) to eradicate these discriminatory and harmful practices. By empowering community members with basic advocacy skills and engaging traditional kings (fons) in the project, they've seen some real success.

The work involves heavy consultation with villagers, before a binding agreement that recognises the rights of widows is drawn up between community advocates and the fon. Much of the daily work to effect change is done by community advocates – women and men who have received training funded by VSO to support widows.

In Baba1, one district in the north west of Cameroon, the fon, Fuekemshi II became the first ruler to sign an agreement to protect widows in the region in May 2008 and support the project in its early stages.  "If I hadn't been interested, it would still be the way it was," he says. "What we are trying to do is come out of the old... This is a culture that needs to be wiped out, and in this village, it's changing fast," he said.

VSO volunteer Christiane Bossé coordinates the implementation of the project in five fondoms (traditional kingdoms), and supports the project to raise awareness of its successes, which are not easily gained. "It's a very gradual process," she explains. "Even if the Fon has signed the agreement, there’s still often a lot of sensitisation and work that needs to happen."

An effective model to change attitudes

Thanks to the initial success of the project, MUSAB and VSO are hoping to roll it out across the Northwest Region, and share best practice with other regions. It has been extended to five other fondoms, reaching approximately 8,000 widows. Volunteer Christiane says, "We’ve had real success so far and great impact, so we’re keen to scale up."

The project was first started by Mallam, Executive President of MUSAB in 2008 in his own community, Baba1 where 80% of women are widows. Fully aware of the sensitivities involved in their efforts, he is setting his sights on targeting younger fons next, "Some of the younger fons have been to university," he says. "They will see what we are presenting and understand why we are coming in. Some of these traditions have lasted more than 500 years."

Empowering women even further

Volunteer Christiane Bossé has added a livelihoods dimension to the project in Baba1 by starting a cornmeal-grinding business, with all profits going towards supporting the advocacy group in their work on behalf of the widows of the community. "If, for example, a widow has a problem and she needs to go to the palace, she cannot go empty-handed and that costs money," she explains.

Critically, the project engages not only women but also men who are passionate about representing the rights of widows. However, community advocate and widow Lydia believes it is the marginalised women for whom the greatest change is being felt, "The women had been suffering in silence and now they have found a voice."

VSO is campaigning for increased involvement of women in decision making at all levels. We're calling on the UK government to support publicly and advocate for women's participation and influence to be a key aspect of the global development framework that replaces the Millennium Development Goals after 2015. To know more about the campaign go to www.vso.org.uk/womeninpower

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