Ntankah Village Women Work Tirelessly for Change in Cameroon
Theresa Fonjia Morfaw
The work of the Ntankah Village Women Common Initiative Group has been recognized nationally and internationally with numerous awards, including the Red Ribbon Award, the Cordaid Award, The Guardian’s post award, and the Watchdog Award as NGO of the Year. The Coordinator of Ntankah was also recognized with an award by YWCA in Kenya as one of 14 women leading change around the world.
The Ntankah Village Women Common Initiative Group is a grassroots women’s self-help group incorporated in Cameroon under the law on cooperatives and common initiative groups. We focus on gender empowerment, livelihood improvement, and HIV/AIDS care. Our main activities emphasize agriculture, including joint farming; a revolving loan scheme; advocacy in land and property; governance; and HIV/AIDS work with an emphasis on sensitization and delivery of home-based care. We are also a member group of several international women’s organizations, such as GROOTS International, Huairou Commission, and Mothers Centres International Network for Empowerment.
Cameroon, like many other African countries, has a lot of developmental issues. These include a lack of safe and clean drinking water, which impacts African women in particular. Women may walk up to five miles a day to fetch water and their health is endangered by micro-organisms in the water. Education on water issues is vital. A recent survey shows that 53.2 percent of Cameroonian women are illiterate. Most families cannot afford to send more than one or two children to school, and these are usually the boys.
Women at the grassroots level are greatly affected by poverty; men often travel to industrial areas to work while women keep the rural economy running. The informal slogan of the UN Decade of Women became “Women do two-thirds of the world’s work, receive 10 percent of the world’s income and own 1 percent of the means of production.” Women not only earn less than men but also tend to own fewer assets, earn smaller salaries, and have less control over household income despite the fact that they do most of the work. Gender biases in property and inheritance laws and in other channels of acquiring assets also leave women and children at greater risk of poverty.
Most women in rural communities are subsistence farmers, and they sell much of their produce at markets. However, transportation of this produce to the market usually is not easy due to poor farm-market roads. When drought or floods ruin crops the women have no source of food or disposable income unless they receive food aid. These women usually live without electricity, telephones, or modern plumbing. Additionally, women and girls in rural Cameroon experience the same kinds of violence and sexual violence that women in other parts of the world face and possibly to a greater extent. Women living in villages are rape targets because these places are isolated and lack modern forms of communication to call for help when there is danger.
Female genital mutilation, preformed ritually in some cultures, is a violent and dangerous practice that women can seldom prevent. In some cases, women experience forced marriages as well as brutality by their husbands. HIV/AIDS has a gender element to it because of a lack of awareness by both partners, as well as partners not wanting to protect themselves. Statistics show that women in rural communities are at the highest risk of contracting the illness due to biology, ignorance, culture, and male dominance.
Lack of access to health services is another serious issue grassroots women face. Many women die as a result of pregnancy complications and childbirth. Yet many of their lives could have been saved if they had access to basic health care services. Often HIV-positive women or those widowed by HIV/AIDS lose their homes due to stigmatization and disinheritance, another issue that women face in their communities. Pregnant and nursing women with HIV/AIDS lack access to drugs to prevent passing it on to their babies. Even media attention on women who help and fight to address these problems is distorted – most editors and publishers are men. They have a tendency to cover up for other men by failing to pose questions on women’s issues they way they are. This leads to inappropriate dissemination of information, hence a poorly informed society.
We will not see sustainable progress unless we seek sustainable solutions. Over the years there has been advancement by women in politics, education, health rights, and many other areas. However, these advances have to be spread throughout the grassroots and translate into greater equity in employment, education, politics so that girls and women enjoy equality.
To address a broad spectrum of these issues, Ntankah was created in 1996 with the vision of involving women at the grassroots level in their own development and that of their communities. Ntankah has since creation been struggling to give voice and visibility to grassroots women locally and internationally through its various programms, projects, and activities. To tackle the issue of women marginalization and male dominance it has taught a range of income-generating activities to enable independence amongst women at the grassroots level and to sustain livelihoods. Ntankah works tirelessly to educate the young girls and women formally and informally. We have special programs for adult literacy, because we know from statistics that a lack of education sustains poverty by not qualifying women for the job market.
Ntankah supports grassroots women with a microfinance scheme, helping them by offering loans with little or no interest to start up or expand small businesses of their choice and to help themselves financially. Ntankah also advocates for women’s land and housing rights nationally and internationally as a WLLA (Women Land Link Africa) network member. Community watchdogs and paralegals have been developed and assigned to educate women at the grassroots level of their basic rights as well as monitor and report any form of rights violations on women in an attempt to protect their interests.
We were honored that Ntankah received the Cordaid Award in recognition of our important work related to HIV/AIDS. Ntankah has done a lot in response to HIV/AIDS, including taking upon itself to go to those very rural areas to sensitize on prevention and living positively for those who are positive and to offer free voluntary counseling and testing through mobile clinics, hospital referrals and food packages. We have also created two very strong networks: The Cameroon Home Based Care Alliance which is made up of trained home based caregivers who give special care to HIV/AIDS clients, such as door-to-door service for cooking and medical follow up amongst others. This alliance also advocates for the compensation for contribution to home based caregivers. The CAGWEESA Network works to advance the educational, economic, and social status of grassroots women.
We want to note that despite the many Ntankah successes, the road has not always been smooth. One of the major problems is facing some very deep-rooted cultural traditions in remote villages that still consider women as property, and therefore believe that women should be treated as such. We have also received negative reactions from some men and even some women, blaming the group of voluntarily instigating women to violate laws and disobey their husbands. It hasn’t been easy working with various administrations, as the group faces bureaucratic delays from administrators unwilling to sign documents which are vital to our work. One other obstacle faced by Ntankah is the lack of enough financial and material resources to carry out its work effectively. We have also been victimized through blackmail attempts by some more established NGOs. These, in a nutshell, are some of the many challenges we have faced over the years.
Despite all difficulties and constraints Ntankah firmly believes that determination and resilience will prevail and are effectively contributing to the growth and advancement of the global women’s movement. As well said by a school of thought, development is a process and not an event. Ntankah has very high hopes and dreams that in the nearest future, Cameroon’s grassroots women will finally see the light of development and follow its path.
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