Aissa Doumara Ngatansou was 15 years old when she was forced into marriage.
Nearly 30 per cent of girls in Ngatansou’s home in North Cameroon are married before the age of 18, facing loss of education, high rates of maternal mortality, and increased risk of gender-based violence. Many others suffer sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram militants, who have terrorized the region for over a decade.
Today, at 49, Ngatansou is working to change the narrative for women and girls in the Lake Chad Basin – an area encompassing Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.
Her organization, the Association for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, gives women decision-making power over their daily lives and offers a way out of crisis and disaster. Her latest project is sponsored by UN Women, with the support of Japan and Spain, which are signatories of the Compact on Women, Peace and Security and Humantarian Action (WPS-HA).
At a time when many local women’s organizations are scaling down disaster resilience initiatives or closing their doors due to lack of funding, Ngatansou’s project has had remarkable reach and success.
In the first half of 2020, her organization provided psychological support to over 420 women and 290 girls affected by conflict, crisis and disaster, as well as gender-based violence. In addition, over 500 girls received support to stay in school, giving them an alternative to child marriage.
Ngantansou also engaged 200 community leaders, including survivors of sexual violence, teaching them to address trauma and mediate conflict.
“When they first come to us we enroll them in programmes to strengthen their skills and self esteem,” Ngantansou said. “By the end of this process they become leaders of their own associations and are trained to solve community conflicts.”
Women giving hope to women
Ngantansou struggles to hold back tears as she speaks about the progress made in the fight for gender equality in Cameroon – an effort which garnered her the first Simone Veil Prize for courage in advancing women’s rights, awarded by the French Government in 2019.
“The example set by the women we support gives hope to others and shows us how violence against women and girls affects all of society,” she said. “It doesn’t only target the victim, but also her family and children, her community and the whole country. Fighting against it is the key to enhancing human rights and promoting development.”
Ngantansou is proud to have helped remove the taboo from discussions about gender-based violence, giving survivors the courage to seek trauma counseling and demand change in the halls of government. “Now I even hear female politicians publicly reveal that they too were victims of violence. I am glad I could live to witness this change, and to know I have contributed to it.”
Supporting women at all stages of crisis
For UN Women, the partnership with Ngantansou is part of a two-year project in the Lake Chad Basin, which promotes women’s leadership in disaster risk reduction and humanitarian response, and provides opportunities for their voices to be heard by policymakers.
According to UN Women programme manager Toshihisa Nakamura, these efforts fall under the organization’s broader Women’s Resilience to Disasters programming, which gives women and girls the tools to survive and thrive during all stages of disaster.
Disasters often displace women and girls, making them more vulnerable to exploitation and gender-based violence. They also fuel conflict over natural resources, which trigger refugee crises. Sexual abuse cases in internally displaced person camps often go unreported but are estimated to be in the thousands.
While conflict must be addressed at its source, humanitarian response also needs to provide women and girls with a way out of crisis – from counseling and sexual and reproductive health services, to education and economic empowerment – which is known as a humanitarian-development-peace nexus approach.
Instability, according to Nakamura, also presents operational challenges for crisis response, as disasters destroy infrastructure and generate high security risks for people working or living in the area.
“We need to deliver programmes in a way that really addresses these challenges,” Nakamura said. “We need to work with local partners, including women’s organizations, as well as have a plan B, C and even D, and keep learning every day.”
An inclusive global movement for gender equality
Since the project’s launch in April 2020, UN Women has partnered with over 100 stakeholders and local women’s organizations, connecting them with funding and resources and multiplying their efforts.
“It really takes a lot of partners with different expertise – whether that’s governments who provide funding and political support, organizations like UN Women, which contribute expertise in gender equality and women’s empowerment initiatives, or local women’s organizations who have the trust of their communities and can advise on what’s most needed,” Nakamura said.
“As a signatory of the newly launched WPS-HA Compact, and as part of the Generation Equality Action Coalition on Climate Justice, UN Women believes that we have the chance to scale up these efforts and truly catalyze a global movement for gender equality.”