The U.S. Embassy partners with Washington Mandela Fellows

group photographOn January 28, 2015, the U.S. Embassy joined Mandela Washington Fellows in a program, for 500 students at Government Bilingual High School (GBHS) Nkambe, to end violence against women. The program brought together hundreds of students from Form-One to Upper-Sixth of GBHS Nkambe, to connect with Mandela Washington Fellows, in a discussion on gender based violence and girls’ education.

The school principal launched the event with the singing of the national Anthem, followed by remarks on the importance of educating the girl child. Mandela Washington Fellows –  Gerald Afadani, Zoneziwoh Regina, Violet Fokum, and Christelle Chongwain – continued the program by sharing personal stories of ways education propelled their career and success. Christelle Chongwain shared that  she is the first girlchild in her family to go to college, “My uncle, a priest, believed in me. He paid for my education- a cost my parents could not afford.  Today, I am the founder of the Hope for the Needy Association, which organized this program here today.” Cultural Affairs Specialist (CAS) Viban underlined Christelle’s story as she led the students in an uplifting chant “Everybody is somebody and nobody is a nobody.” The Cultural Affairs Officer concluded this information sharing session of the program by saying “President Obama has made investment in African youth a priority.  The proof is right here in front of you. Join me in a loud applause for our YALI. All of you here today have the potential to be leaders in Africa, just like them. President Obama believes in you, we believe in you – now you just need to believe in yourself!”

The students proceeded with a 45 minutes debate on “which is more beneficial to the girl child and society? Education before marriage or marriage before education?” At the conclusion of the debate, CAS Viban congratulated both teams for their creativity, smartness and courage dissecting such a challenging social topic. She gave them an Education USA “Study in the U.S.” book, as a token of encouragement.  She concluded that “It is imperative for you to share with the other students what you have learned so that you can be the change you want to see”.

Following the school program, the Cultural Affairs Officer and U.S. Embassy staff joined YALI alumni in a workshop tailored to traditional and religious leaders from the Donga Mantung Division, to urge them to join the fight against child trafficking and gender based violence.  The Donga Mantung Division, in the Far North West Region of Cameroon is considered a hub for cheap child labor, child trafficking and forceful girl child marriages. To challenge and eradicate these practices that hinder women’s empowerment and economic development, the U.S Embassy partnered with the Hope for the Needy Association (HOFNA) – a non-for-profit organization, founded by YALI alumni Christelle Chongwain – to engage traditional and religious leaders.

Opening the workshop, the Mayor of Nkambe said “The success of every family depends on the organizational skills of the woman.  But in recent times some traditional institutions because of their beliefs have reduced the woman to a mere housekeeper, some even send them on forceful marriages because of greed and ignorance.”  He concluded by thanking the American government for their Peace Corps presence in the Nkambe community.  In a presentation on the Wimbum tradition, Fon Budi III of Kungi said that forceful marriages were practiced in many palaces and continues to be rampant amongst the fulanis where children as young as nine years are given out to elderly men. He expressed his outrage at the practice of local parents who give out their children to wealthy Cameroonian families from surrounding cities to serve as domestic servants. The Divisional Delegate of Women Empowerment gave a presentation on the causes of child trafficking, noting “Donga Mantung people have a long standing custom of helping either young couples or people in need, with a child who can assist in the family.  Unfortunately, today most of these children are turned into slaves in those homes.”

The Cultural Affairs Officer called upon the traditional and religious leaders to be the agents of change “ You are the pillars of the Nkambe community- where tradition and prosperity come together. You have shown leadership by simply being here today and committing yourselves to end gender based violence.  The United States supports you in empowering the women of Nkambe and I can’t wait to return to see the progress you have made after this workshop.” At the conclusion of the workshop, the traditional leaders and government representatives signed a pledge to end gender based violence in the Donga Mantung Division.

On the following day, January 29, Americans joined Cameroonians at a “March to End Violence Against Women” in Bamenda.  Peace Corps Volunteer Rachel Chaikof, joined Mandela Washington Fellows, U.S Embassy team, and motorbike riders of the city of Bamenda in a march around the city of Bamenda. The group of 100 participants distributed  flyers and posters to hundreds of people around Bamenda, calling women to denounce violent treatments and encouraging men to be partners in the fight against GBV.

The U.S. Embassy team’s visit to Nkambe and Bamenda, expands public diplomacy outreach, promotes cultural programs and entrepreneurship, and strengthens the empowerment of women and youth.  The lead participation of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Washington Mandela Fellows in our student outreach programs directly enhance our efforts, and provide Cameroonian youth with voices of inspiration and mentorship to achieve their own dreams and find African solutions to Africa’s challenges, as envisioned by President Obama.

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