In Cameroon, the barriers for young people to access sexual and reproductive health information and services are vast. Gender inequality, paltry political commitment, and inadequate policies leave girls and women at risk for unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Women are almost twice as likely to be HIV-positive than their male counterparts. Approximately 2.3 million women of reproductive age—43 percent of all women aged 15-49—are sexually active and want to control their fertility; however 63 percent have an unmet need for contraception.
Changing this reality requires expertise and commitment from locally based organizations, like new IWHC grantee partner, Women for a Change Cameroon (Wfac), that know their context best. Though Cameroon can be a difficult environment to advocate for women’s rights, Wfac is committed to advancing sexual and reproductive rights and demonstrates an ability to collaborate with like-minded organizations. These relationships are crucial for building a sustainable women’s movement and bottom-up approaches to policy change. For these reasons, IWHC is proud to welcome Wfac into its network and support its vital work to advance a feminist approach to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Women for a Change Cameroon is based in Buea, in the Anglophone Southwest region of the country. It is volunteer-run and takes an intersectional and bold approach to advance the rights of girls by addressing gender-based violence, furthering comprehensive sexuality education, conducting advocacy, and providing leadership training. The region is experiencing substantial violence and political turmoil as English-speaking separatists and government forces clash with severe consequences for civilians and activists—allegations of torture and arbitrary arrest by government forces are common. Strikes by Anglophone teachers and students appealing for greater representation in the predominately Francophone country initially sparked the unrest and violence in 2016.
Despite this violent backdrop and political uncertainty, Wfac is working at the grassroots level for gender equality. As a small, feminist organization focused on furthering sexual and reproductive health education and rights, it engages directly with adolescents, teachers, and school authorities. Wfac has worked with girls at the Buea School for the Deaf, and centers abortion rights in its messaging to young people and local communities. This focus on youth is key in a country where 60 percent of the population is under 25. With the IWHC grant, Wfac will offer information on sexual and reproductive health and rights to 80 young people, with a focus on adolescent girls, in four high schools across the Southwest, Centre, and Littoral regions of the country. This includes the recruitment and training of program facilitators as well as the sensitization of high school authorities. Additionally, Wfac will build on its budding advocacy work with the ultimate goal to encourage the government to provide necessary comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services and information.
This is critically important, especially in a country like Cameroon where the complex security environment—from Boko Haram in the north to unrest and violence in the Anglophone region—creates a narrow policy focus where change, particularly relating to women’s rights, is unlikely. Cameroon faces many barriers to gender equality. Child marriage is common—31 percent of girls are married by 18—despite legislation in 2016 that bans the practice. Teenage pregnancies comprise 25 percent of all pregnancies in the country, leading to a sharp decrease in girls’ education, and use of contraceptives is limited by stigma. Violence against women is also widespread, with 51 percent of women experiencing intimate partner violence. These realities highlight the importance of Wfac’s work and supporting organizations that seek to address inequality, discrimination, and reproductive health.
Though IWHC has long been an active supporter of the women’s movement in northern Cameroon, its new partnership with Wfac, marks its first grant in the Anglophone region. IWHC is committed to supporting burgeoning feminist organizations that aim to advance adolescents’ access to sexual and reproductive health information and improve coordination among women’s movements across the country. With this grant, IWHC looks forward to working and learning alongside Wfac to educate and advance the rights of adolescent girls.
Photo: Erin Williams/IWHC.