“Young people need to be educated about their sexual rights. In Cameroun, the rights of young women are violated all the time. Many women don’t know that they have the right to decide with whom and when to have sexual relations.”
Dadine Dsandjon is the Assistant Executive Secretary of RENATA (Reseau National des Associations des Tantines, or “National Network of Aunties Association” in English), a network of more than 60 “Aunties” associations in Cameroun that bring comprehensive sexuality education to adolescents and teenage mothers. Dadine is formally trained in the prevention of early and unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV/AIDS, and harmful traditional practices such as unsafe abortion.
IWHC: Tell us the story of your life.
Dadine Dsandjon: My father has three wives and 26 children. I am the nineteenth child of my father, and the fifth child of my mother. I grew up with my entire family in Douala, where I attended primary school. When I was 11, my father lost his job and it became too expensive to live in the city. We moved to a village and I enrolled in secondary school.
IWHC: What is your first memory as a young girl or young woman of a situation where you were personally aware of or affected by gender inequalities or a lack of rights for girls and women?
DD: Traditionally, women take a lower place than men. If a man is seated, the woman must sit in a chair lower than his. She can neither look at him nor speak to him except to say “yes, father, older brother, oldest brother,” and so on. A husband has the right to call his wife by her name, but the wife doesn’t have the same right. She can only say “yes, my elder.”
IWHC: How did the experience of growing up in Cameroun differ for girls and boys, both as young children and as teens? Did the activities, interests, and perception of the future differ for girls and boys?
DD: Boys didn’t have any household chores, but girls always had to be in the home. We couldn’t go out or do things we wanted. The boys were out playing while we were inside helping our mother with chores. If there were parties we were invited to, we weren’t allowed to go, but the boys could go freely. When we complained, the mothers would say, “They are boys. And you are girls. You have to learn to be sweet for your future husbands.”
IWHC: Growing up, did you ever learn or talk about sex and reproductive health and rights?
DD: We never talked about these things, not even with our sisters. All our mothers told us was if you have your period, you could get pregnant. There were no details or information about how to protect ourselves from unwanted pregnancy. I have no idea what our parents thought about sex and reproductive health and rights because they never talked about it.
IWHC: What inspired you to work with Tantines?
DD: When you have a child as a teenager, you are often not respected by others in the community. I had felt reduced to nothing – belittled – until I was introduced to Tantines.
I felt like I found someone I could confide in – someone who could identify with my problems and answer my questions about sexual and reproductive health. This made me want to be involved in the organization so that I could help others in the same way.
IWHC: How do you feel that Tantines has changed young people’s lives, either in specific instances or in general?
DD: Personally, Tantines has had an enormously positive effect on my life. Today, I am an executive officer, and I have a salary. It’s as if Tantines pulled me out of the dark and showed me the light. I had been working in the fields, and now I am helping to manage an organization.
IWHC: What do you see as major challenges facing young people in Cameroun today? What about greatest opportunities?
DD: A major challenge facing youth in Cameroun is accessing education. There are fees, often very high, to attend secondary school. This prevents many young people from enrolling, especially in the rural areas.
IWHC: What do you think are some of the most important issues for programmers and policymakers to address in order to promote and protect the health and rights of young people—especially young girls?
DD: Maternal and infant mortality, as a result of early pregnancy in particular, must be addressed. When an adolescent girl conceives, often her body is not developed enough to carry a child, let alone give birth. She is most likely abandoned by her partner, and often keeps her pregnancy a secret from her parents because she is afraid of being labeled by her family – and by society in general – as promiscuous, or even as a prostitute. This means that she never seeks any medical care, and may therefore be at risk of infection or other complications.
IWHC: Do you have positive examples from your professional or personal experience in which both dialogue and programming have achieved meaningful youth participation or leadership? What was effective about these particular examples?
DD: Tantines’ trainings teach young people how to approach other young people and actively listen to them, as well as how to develop solutions to their problems.
IWHC: What are you proudest of?
DD: My work with Tantines makes me feel valuable and useful in society. It makes me happy when I walk down the street and I hear people calling my name. I’m proud when girls come up to me and thank me for the advice I have given them.
IWHC: What are your dreams for the future? Can you describe your vision of an ideal or better world?
DD: I hope to return to school and major in psychology at the university here in Yaoundé. I want to continue in the same field of work (helping others through counseling), so I feel psychology is the best area of study for me.
IWHC: How do you imagine your future?
DD: I would like to be the head of a nongovernmental organization (NGO), where I would work as a psychologist. The NGO would work to protect and defend the rights of children, and promote their treatment and care. I love children, and I would like to defend their interests.