For building a model of community-based child protection in the face of terrorist insurgency and gender-based violence in the Lake Chad region of Cameroon.
Jurist Marthe Wandou is a Cameroonian gender and peace activist who has worked to prevent and fight sexual violence against children, particularly girls, as well as care for survivors of such violence since the 1990s. Through her organisation Action Locale pour un Développement Participatif et Autogéré (ALDEPA), which she founded in 1998, Wandou has supported the wellbeing of girls through a holistic approach based on education, psychosocial care and legal assistance.
More than 50,000 girls have benefited so far from ALDEPA’s work, which is rooted in mobilising entire communities, especially through the involvement of parents, children and community leaders. The organisation has assisted with the gradual eradication of the practice of early marriage. It has also provided 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.
Wandou emphasises psychosocial support for recovering from trauma and assistance with reintegration for victims of sexual violence and abduction. These have been especially important in Wandou’s work with refugees and internally displaced persons affected by the Boko Haram extremist group in the Far North Region of Cameroon.
Operating in a context marked by harmful cultural practices and insecurity, Wandou has emerged as a courageous leader in fighting sexual violence and championing the wellbeing of girls and women in Cameroon and the Lake Chad Basin.
Marthe Wandou is a Cameroonian activist working to improve the wellbeing of girls and women, including survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. Through community-based intervention, she has campaigned to change harmful cultural practices, such as early marriage, giving girls more options for their future. She has also assisted survivors of violence by the Boko Haram extremist group operating in the Lake Chad Basin, cementing her as one of the leading voices for the protection of girls and women in the region.
Born and raised in Kaélé, a village in the Far North Region of Cameroon, Wandou witnessed and experienced first-hand the harsh reality facing children, especially girls. Access to education is often limited, leaving girls with few options. As of 2021, it is estimated that in Cameroon’s Far North Region, some 40,000 children cannot take their first-grade exams simply because they do not possess a birth certificate - with 65 per cent of the children affected by this being girls. Due to this and other factors, only 40 per cent of girls go to school in the Far North Region. The lack of education and opportunities for girls often leads to early marriage, a fate that Wandou was able to avoid but witnessed many of her young friends enduring. According to UN Women, in 2021, almost 30 per cent of Cameroonian women aged 20 to 24 had been married or in a union before the age of 18.
Gender-based and sexual violence is also prevalent in the country. According to 2021 data from UN Women more than half of women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner during their lifetimes.
Despite the conservative context of her upbringing, Wandou was one of the first girls from her village to attend university in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé. This was thanks to the support of her family and their insistence on the importance of education, particularly for girls.
Graduating with a license in private law, Wandou began her career in the development sector with the aim of creating more opportunities for girls and women. She quickly came to realise that in order to improve conditions for women in general it was crucial to intervene at an earlier stage with girls.
ALDEPA: Supporting women and girls through a holistic approach
In 1998, Wandou founded ALDEPA, which operates mainly in the Far North Region of Cameroon. Through the organisation, Wandou has focused her efforts on improving the situation for girls by addressing parents, community leaders, teachers and the girls themselves. Much of this involves countering deep-rooted cultural practices and stereotypes, which requires creative solutions. Her work includes a multi-faceted approach: focusing on education, psychosocial care and legal support.
In terms of education, Wandou raises awareness among parents of the vital importance of keeping their children in school. She also trains teachers to enforce the ban on physical violence and humiliating treatment. Together with the Cameroonian Ministry of Basic Education and the Cameroonian NGO CIPCRE, ALDEPA created in 2014 a code of conduct to fight sexual and gender-based violence in primary schools. The guideline, which is addressed to teachers, school staff, students and parents, calls for eradicating abuse and violence inflicted on children in school, as they are the leading causes of school dropout.
ALDEPA has developed an innovative method to create children's governments and girls’ clubs in schools to provide better protection. The former is meant to promote a sense of ownership of democratic mechanisms among children and help them communicate openly. The girls’ clubs encourage mutual vigilance for the wellbeing of the girls and provide a place to openly discuss and condemn harmful practices. As a result, many girls have been able to escape from forced marriages and return to school.
ALDEPA’s legal support is focused on helping families be aware of their legal responsibilities when it comes to gender-based violence. ALDEPA offers pro-bono legal assistance to families and guides them through the judicial process, identifying the best methods to use. This often also involves convincing them of the need to provide all relevant information without shame.
A fundamental aspect of Wandou’s efforts has been the creation of community structures in every village where ALDEPA operates. These structures are organised by over 100 community relays and more than 1,000 volunteers who contribute to preventing and reporting violence. They are organised into child protection committees, listening and support groups, and adolescent gender clubs. Young ambassadors for peace are regularly trained in psychological first aid, self-defence and warning mechanisms, and community awareness tools. Survivors are also encouraged to get involved in these structures, which strengthens their confidence and reintegration.
Work with Boko Haram survivors
What was an already challenging environment became even more difficult following the violence and chaos sown by the radical terrorist group Boko Haram that began in 2013. Operating in the Lake Chad Basin, which also includes Cameroon’s northern tip, Boko Haram has abducted thousands of people, including school-aged girls, often forcing them into child marriages. The crisis has seen more than 70,000 refugees arriving in the Far North Region of Cameroon, in what the relief organisation Caritas described in 2019 as "one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises” across the Lake Chad Basin.
In response to this catastrophe and the ensuing human suffering, ALDEPA’s project for the protection of girls from sexual violence and the rehabilitation of survivors has been extended to refugee and internally displaced women and girls. Many of them have been raped, beaten, traumatised, and very often left alone with their children because their husbands have been killed.
The victims are taught technical skills such as tailoring, carpentry, motorbike mechanics, computer science and other income generating activities, so that they can earn their own living. ALDEPA’s work also extends to strengthening coexistence among Muslims, Christians and animists who live in the north of Cameroon. Young people, in particular, are trained to reduce inter-religious tensions and fight against violent extremism in their communities.
Demonstrating her leadership and expertise, Wandou has been selected as the head of the platform of national and humanitarian civil society organisations deployed in the region. She has also been involved in developing strategies and planning for the long-term stabilisation and rehabilitation of the Lake Chad Basin from the Boko Haram crisis.
Additionally, she is also the member of influential national women’s networks such as the first-ever National Women’s Convention for Peace in Cameroon committee, the Silencing the Guns in Africa initiative’s Cameroon group, and the Cameroon Women Peace Movement (CAWOPEM). She is also part of the African women mediators and peace builders network FemWise Africa. Wandou serves as President of the Board of Directors of the African Institute for Economic and Social Development (INADES-Formation), Cameroon national office, and also as a member of the international board of directors of the organisation.
Wandou’s courageous work has immeasurably benefitted the lives of girls and children in Cameroon, cementing her as one of the leading voices for the protection of girls and women in the region.