Marthe Wandou – gender and peace activist
Marthe Wandou is a Cameroonian gender and peace activist.
She builds upon community connections to prevent sexual violence against women and children – particularly girls. Based in the Lake Chad Basin of Cameroon, her work also leads her to care for the survivors of different forms of violence in the region.
CW: violence, sexual violence, death
The big picture
Marthe Wandou works to improve the well-being of people living in a context of insecurity and harmful cultural practices.
Her actions include creating better access to education, providing legal assistance, and providing psychosocial care to vulnerable people.
For her work in the Far North Region of Cameroon, she was recently awarded the prestigious “2021 Right Livelihood Award.”
Established in 1980, the Award recognizes “the actions of brave visionaries and building impactful connections around the world.”
The Award is designed to “boost urgent and long-term social change” and provides changemakers with long-term support.
“The Right Livelihood Award
will give us the courage to continue what we are doing.”
Ms. Wandou is Cameroon’s first Right Livelihood Award recipient.
In presenting the Award, she was cited for “building a model of community-based child protection in the face of terrorist insurgency and gender-based violence in the Lake Chad region.”
Over 50,000 girls have benefited from her organization ALDEPA. ALDEPA is a French-language acronym that translates as “Local Action for Participatory and Self-Managed Development” that she created in 1998.
Ms. Wandou has been able to mobilize entire communities to join the effort to heal and end gender-based violence.
Parents, children, community leaders, and religious leaders all come together and stand with ALDEPA to contribute to the culture change.
Through its efforts, the organization is helping to gradually eradicate the practice of early marriage.
It also provides school and life-skills support and capacity building for children and child protection actors.
ALDEPA has also helped families prosecute cases of rape, abduction, and physical violence.
A little background
Marthe Wandou was born and raised in Kaélé, a village in Cameroon’s Far North Region.
One of the first girls in her area to attend university, she experienced firsthand the multiple difficulties of accessing education and opportunities.
But with the support of her family, she continued her studies going on to study Private License Law in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, before studying Project Management at the University of Central Africa and Gender Studies in Antwerp, Belgium.
She then returned home to tackle the issues that she knew from her experience women and girls were facing.
Sexual and physical abuse was prevalent.
Girls frequently marry in their early adolescent years, sometimes to men twice or three times their age.
As a result, they are unable to pursue their education.
Furthermore, girls’ access to education is barred.
Local practices of not issuing birth certificates to children, effectively shuts the school door to many.
It’s estimated that up to 40 000 children cannot enroll in school simply because they cannot provide a birth certificate.
In addition, this region, which shares a border with Nigeria, has been torn by violence and brutality since 2013.
The Boko Haram terrorist insurgency has been a destabilizing force creating great insecurity.
Many young people have been kidnapped, and refugees seeking safety from violence have flowed into the region.
It is a humanitarian crisis that has left many women traumatized.
These survivors have witnessed death, loss, separation from their children and husbands, physical and sexual violence.
So as Marthe Wandou and ALDEPA worked throughout the region, supporting women and girls and working to raise living standards, she realized that to succeed, the whole community needed to be involved.
Her work has become part of a tremendous shift in culture that creates and permits women to have opportunities.
Marthe understood that change starts with education.
Ms. Wandou has worked tirelessly to raise awareness amongst parents of the importance of education for their girls.
To raise awareness, families are included in a conversation that seeks to provide solutions to help families keep girls in school.
Some families don’t have enough money to send all their children to school.
So they make a choice to send their boys and marry their girls.
ALDEPA can step in and help pay tuition fees for girls. ALDEPA also insists on the impact that education has on girls’ lives – Ms. Wandou herself is an example.
But the work doesn’t stop there.
In school, there is also gendered violence and discrimination.
Ms. Wandou has partnered with the Cameroonian Ministry of Basic Education and the Cameroonian NGO CIPCRE to produce a code of conduct in schools to combat this situation.
They developed a document that addresses all educational staff, teachers, parents, and children.
The idea is to involve everyone in abolishing such practices in the educational system.
Additionally, by creating clubs within schools, girls can give each other peer-to-peer support and build agency to advocate for themselves.
Sexual violence, trauma, and the paths to recovery
Marthe also describes a context where unwanted pregnancies and sexual violence are subjects that are silenced by shame.
The result is that it is common for girls to be engaged or married before 18.
It is a cycle of gender-based violence that is perpetuated in the community.
One of ALDEPA’s great successes in breaking this cycle has been establishing 100 community centers in villages across the region. These community centers are staffed by 1000 volunteers and are spaces where gender-based violence can be recorded and prevented.
Here too, Ms. Wandou engages the community in a self-realizing cycle. Girls who have benefited from education or survived and are in the process of healing through the NGO can give back and empower the next generations.
Many leaders in the community, traditional and religious, have seen the benefits of the work and have partnered with ALDEPA to carry their message during religious ceremonies and community gatherings.
A more recent issue has been the consequences of the insurgency of Boko Haram.
Women migrating or returning to the community are frequently traumatized from the violence experienced due to the crisis.
They are survivors living in the community without any support or help to deal with what they have been through.
ALDEPA works with refugees by providing psychosocial care to heal from trauma and create peer-to-peer support networks.
Ms. Wandou reports how merely talking about the subject is challenging for these women.
Many of them break down and don’t want to relive the atrocities that they have been through.
As part of their outreach, the organization started by arranging group activities to create social cohesion.
These activities are often set up around learning a skill to allow these survivors to learn a trade and support themselves in the future. This doesn’t erase the experiences they lived, and it takes time to learn to cope and heal. However, the women who are further along in the process show the newcomers that it is possible to carry on living.
Why it matters
Ms. Wandou has committed over 20 years of her life to improving the well-being of girls and women.
Her life’s work has caused a significant shift in the culture of the communities she serves.
ALDEPA has provided a space where girls and women can be protected and nurtured to succeed and uplift and empower others.
And although she has been highly successful in her endeavors, there is still work to be done.
In a statement to Right Livelihood Ms. Wandou says, “The Right Livelihood Award will give us the courage to continue what we are doing. It will also help us have visibility and call on more people to join us in supporting victims and promoting women’s and children’s rights.”
Marthe Wandou, Right Livelihood and ALDEPA – going further
To learn more about Marthe Wandou, visit ALDEPA’s website or FB page
Likewise, find more information about Right Livelihood on website or social media IG FB Twitter
If you liked this article, you may be interested in the story of two sisters’ fight to end public sexual harassement in the UK here
Feature image credit – photo courtesy of The Right Livelihood Award and Marthe Wandou