Marthe Wandou – Realising rights and livelihoods in the Lake Chad Basin
By John Paul Amah, Children’s Rights Officer at the Global Campus of Human Rights
When I learnt that Marthe Wandou was one of the 2021 Right Livelihood Laureates, I felt very excited and proud. We are both Cameroonians and share a passion for women and children’s rights. I had heard and read about Ms Wandou’s work in the northern parts of Cameroon before. Recognising her ceaseless efforts towards realising the rights of children was motivational for myself and the younger generation of rights defenders.
As a fellow Cameroonian, I also felt proud. When Ms Wandou adorned herself with colours of the national flag – green-red-yellow – during the Right Livelihood Award Presentation in Stockholm, an uncommon sense of patriotism gripped me. Once more, a Cameroonian was being recognised for tremendous efforts to alleviate poverty through her innovative work. At a time when the country is going through profound social and political challenges caused by terrorism in the north and separatist attacks in the English-speaking regions, Ms Wandou has become a symbol of unity and an example of civic engagement that can propel positive change in our communities.
Women and children in the Far North Region of Cameroon
Cameroon, a lower-middle-income country in central Africa has about 28 million people spread across 10 administrative regions. The northernmost, Far North Region home to over 3 million people, is considered the least developed. However, the region has shown improvement in the area of poverty reduction, which is welcome news. Many factors account for this, including initiatives by Ms Wandou. As the founder of Action Locale pour un Développement Participatif et Autogéré (ALDEPA), an organisation engaged in community mobilisation, she has long worked with local populations to decrease violence and increase protections for girls and women, which in turn have allowed them to stay longer in school.
Communities in the Far North Region of the country suffer from violence perpetrated by the extremist group, Boko Haram. The group started attacks in northern Cameroon in 2014, creating population displacements, destroying schools, hospitals and using women and girls as female suicide bombers. For this reason, counter-insurgency operations have been targeting women. Recently, a video was released showing armed men summarily executing women and babies suspected of being members of Boko Haram. This comes on top of the extreme gender and conflict-related violence that women and girls face every day in the region.
Sometimes, harm comes even from within communities due to cultural practices, such as Female Genital Mutilation, child marriages, deprivation of girl-child education, and widowhood inheritance with little participation by women and children in decision-making processes. Living in a harsh, desert-like and rapidly degrading environment, those in rural areas are forced to track for miles, often in search for water and fuelwood.
Standing up for women and the girl-child
When Ms Wandou, fondly called Maman (Mother) created ALDEPA in 1998, the main objective was to ‘build a just and equitable society with the responsible participation of the population.’ ALDEPA uses a holistic approach based on education, psychosocial care and legal assistance to women and children in a context where empowering a woman amounts to empowering the household.
For over the past 20 years, ALDEPA has provided shelter for women and girls who are victims of gender-based violence and Boko Haram atrocities, lending them material and psychosocial support and facilitating their reintegration. Ms Wandou has also found ways to change minds about harmful cultural practices. ALDEPA has broken the yoke in an ultra-traditional society and established constructive dialogue between traditional, religious and local administrative authorities on how to systematically eradicate abusive customs and empower women. The organisation has been working on juvenile justice, helping families prosecute rape and other forms of violence against children, and building their capacities and providing trainings on life skills to make them self-reliant. Ms. Wandou’s work has benefitted more than 50,000 girls.
Her story is one that is both inspiring and educational for human rights defenders and future generations of change-makers.
John Paul Amah is a Children’s Rights Officer at the Global Campus of Human Rights, a partner of Right Livelihood. His research focuses on the core principles of the UN CRC that are – non-discrimination, best interest of the child, survival and development of the child, and children’s right to express themselves on matters that concern them.