Hearing Women’s Voices in the Villages of Cameroon

O'Donoghue and neighbor Helen

O’Donoghue and neighbor Helen fetch firewood.

In September 2011, when I arrived in the village of Bechati in Cameroon to begin my Peace Corps service, I discovered that child marriage is the norm, with girls dropping out of school around age 10 and being forced into polygamous marriages. Most children suffer from malnutrition and girls cannot answer the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?”.

I was shaken to the bone and quickly met with the leaders of the community to express my concerns. Within six short months, with support from a local health care center, we turned a few abandoned rooms at the clinic into a Girls’ Empowerment Center.

Every weekend, 20-30 girls would gather at the GEC. Under my and a Cameroonian social worker’s guidance, they would participate in life-skills education, career development and counseling. The group seemed to be fully engaged in the lessons while at the center, but I couldn’t help but notice that the numbers of barefoot and pregnant girls increased each week.

Rather than becoming discouraged, I drew from my student background in applied psychology. My teachers and mentors in the program had taught me the value of perseverance and that behavioral change is a slow process with many interruptions, relapses and disappointments. It is important to focus on the process of change and the individual, rather than the outcome.

Classroom lesson in Cameroon

WEP women learn goal-setting.

Not long after getting the Girls’ Empowerment Center up and running, I partnered with Breaking Ground, an American-based, non-governmental organization. They had been working in Cameroon for three years focusing mostly on agriculture, but believed the community could also greatly benefit from a Women’s Entrepreneurial Program. Study after study has shown that foreign assistance is most productive when used towards women, because they tend to invest resources back into their communities at a much higher rate than men.

The Women’s Entrepreneurial Program provides mostly-illiterate women in the villages of Bechati, Folepi, Bangang and Nkong with business skills, including goal setting and budgeting. It also emphasizes family-life education, nutrition and the importance of education for girls. To help ensure the program’s success and sustainability, we welcomed women and girls of all ages.

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Men are not alone in perpetuating the traditional views that can be oppressive to women. We found that many girls previously involved at the GEC were hindered from putting what they had learned into practice due to messages of submission received at home from their mothers and grandmothers. In the villages where we began our work, it is still taboo for women to voice their opinions publicly, so creating a safe and supportive environment where all voices could be heard was a challenge.

Graduating class WEP

WEP graduation class.

My undergraduate internship at Willow House gave me important inspiration and guidance for this new challenge. At Willow House, which provides grief counseling services to youth in Chicago and several suburbs, I witnessed individuals discovering new strengths while assisting others in the grieving process. I incorporated the peer education and small-group discussion format I had learned there into the work at the Women’s Empowerment Center.

In the safe company of women, many of my WEC students became comfortable and rose to challenges they previously felt were impossible. For example, most of the women found a way to complete written assignments by asking their children to write out their ideas for them.

Funeral dance in Cameroon

O’Donoghue shares a funeral dance.

I tried my best to share with the women the things I believed they would benefit from most. In return, they showered me with an abundance of compassion and hospitality. Whenever I felt weighed down and questioned the impact of my work, the everyday graces of living in a remote Cameroonian village lifted my spirit. Memories of preparing meals and sharing stories with women over an open fire or dancing, drumming and chanting with children at a community event provided sustenance.

During my stay cultural boundaries were slowly transcended and it became more apparent with each and every day that we share many of the same hopes and fears—and we are more alike than different.

I will complete my Peace Corps service in December 2013. I plan to obtain a degree in nursing and hope to return to Africa to work in a community deprived of access to basic health care. Responding to crisis situations is especially appealing to me, because I will be able to see the direct impact my work has on the community I am serving.

All photos courtesy of Katie O’Donoghue

To learn more about the bachelor of arts degree in applied psychology contact Mitchell Roitman, director of undergraduate studies, department of psychology at mroitman@uic.edu.

Watch a video about the Women’s Entrepreneurial Program.