Meet the Girls: Fatima Abdullahi

The following profile comes courtesy of Dicko Sulle, the interim head of English Language and Literature of English Expression at GSS Upkwa.

Fatima Abdullahi Photo courtesy of Dicko Sulle

Meet Fatima Abdullahi, an orphan who never saw her real father. Her father was shot dead by thieves when she was just 2 years old. Fatima and her younger sister, Maryam Abdullahi lived with their maternal grandmother after their mother remarried another man. Fatima is currently in form five while her sister, Maryam is in form three in GSS Upkwa. Fatima is a fourth time recipient of the A2Empowerment scholarship and one of the brightest and focused on achieving her goals in life. She plans to becoming a nurse and is assiduous, punctual in class with strong interest in extra-curricular activities. Fatima is engaged and open-minded which allows her interact freely more than many others. This quality makes many to see her as role model who can trigger positive mentality change in the Aku community regarding girls’ education.

The Aku is a community with rigid traditional patterns that relegate women to the background. They believe the best place for women is the kitchen and girls are married off as early as twelve years. They believe that sending girls to school is exposing them to taboo behaviors like premarital sex and early pregnancy which families regard as abomination. To have a child out of wedlock is considered a public disgrace and the safest way to avoid it is marrying off girls early enough. Note that the Aku community number about 40,000 inhabitants and there are only two girls who have ever reached high school. Due to cultural prejudice, none of the two went any significant way in achieving their life goals, one of them ended up marrying a stark illiterate husband as a third wife while the other one is trying a living as a nurse with a private health unit.

You may be wondering why I began by associating Fatima’s story with her sister’s, Maryam. It is not out of mere coincidence. Both girls have been under stiff pressure to marry. Last year, their uncles attempted to marry Fatima off to his son. After strong resistance, Fatima and I rallied her maternal uncles to isolate the uncle and stop the marriage. After conceding defeat, this uncle never completely withdrew his bid. This time around, he has succeeded to gain Fatima’s paternal grandfather’s support to push the deal again and two of them are making considerable advances. Grandparents’ opinions are usually treated with much respect in the Aku community and Fatima’s marital life is now hanging in a balance. They have already succeeded to marry off Fatima’s younger sister Maryam who is only 13 and the spotlight is now entirely focused on Fatima.

Fatima is now only 17 and the Cameroon legal system requires in its section 356 (2), that anyone who forces a girl under 18 years old into marriage is liable to imprisonment of up to two years whatever the mitigating circumstances. Fatima is poised to defend her right to education and marry only at the appropriate time but her family pressure is already showing visible signs of psychological wear down. Her school attendance rate has dropped, she has been regularly sick and she fears that her end of course official examination in June 2018, will be negatively affected. Fatima’s story is not an isolated case of girls being married off against their will. But her story has already sparked hard conversations on the phenomenon because of her interest in attending school and asserting her voice regarding her marital life.

I am confident Fatima will win the battle and pave the way for many more girls to assert their voices. My role in Fatima’s story is not to entirely stand against a long term tradition of early marriages, but to give education preference in the lives of girls. Standing against this tradition will only antagonize me with the community and hinder my ability to continue talking about girls’ education. My view is to seek alternative ways how this phenomenon does not stop girls’ access to education by encouraging community members to accept married women can go to school. To speak about this with authority and provide a palpable example, I have sent my own wife to school from her marital home. Rashida, whose story started in a similar way like Fatima, is in form three in GHS Wum and my goal is to empower her to join her voice to mine in advocating girls’ education in the future.

Bra Project, Take 2

by Anne Cheung

In the fall of 2016, I got an email from a friend at work asking if she was still collecting bras for disbursement through her A2Empowerment network in Cameroon.  Why not?  After all, the original project had been successful and a few bras had rolled in here and there since the first collection in 2012.  I thought I’d just stuff a couple more into the closet until the next big donation drive…well, that drive happened sooner than I thought because by replying yes to that email I had inadvertently agreed to the next big bra donation drive!  Next thing I knew, I was copied on an email distribution list to the women’s network at the company where I work!  I didn’t want to deny those in the A2Empowerment a chance to donate, so I put out an email. Hundreds of new or nearly new bras were donated last fall.  Longtime A2Empowerment supporter and dear friend, Mia Rushe, along with her daughter Maeve, volunteered to take over.  They sorted through all of the bras, packaged and repackaged them to find the most efficient means of shipment, and paid hundreds of dollars to ship them to Peace Corps Volunteer, Gina Dettmer, in Cameroon.

Gina and local women in her community held a bra sale in late Feburary.  As relayed by Gina in March,

The bras arrived last week.  Oh, have they been a hit.  We are selling them at 200F each (about 30 cents) to various women’s groups:  our A2 girls, our Widows Empowerment Project members, and local farmers.  All proceeds go to our widows’ group.  I wish you were here to hear the comments.  “This breast wear is STRONG.  Beautiful!  Beautiful!” Makes me so happy.

Thank you for making me so happy.  For making my counterpart (the one in the green dress) so happy, and all the women and girls who are benefiting.  Rock on!

What’s better than sending 200+ bras to Cameroon to literally support women, improving their confidence and self-esteem? Sending 200+ more!  We have hundreds of additional bras, many collected in Western New York by Anne Rapin’s mom and aunt, waiting to send and still sorted in the Rushe basement. This fall the Women’s Internal Network (WIN) at Biogen plans to hold a fundraiser to collect funding to ship the remaining bras to Cameroon.  Stay tuned for Bra Project, Take 3…

A special thank you to the Rushe family, Gina Dettmer, Gloria LaSota, Lynne Rapin, Parika Petaipimol, all volunteers and everyone who made a donation!

Bra Project, Take 1

In 2012, a small group of the A2Empowerment network supported a bra project.  The idea was sparked by a blog post from Charmayne Cooley, a Peace Corps Volunteer at the time:

http://candidcameroon.blogspot.com/2012/06/i-know-that-youll-never-be-same-again.html

Sunday, June 24th 2012 (2nd to last paragraph for date entry):

“…After a year and a half in village, I felt like I had a pretty good grasp on a lot of the major problems – but also recognize that there’s always something new to learn as the “outsider.”  What was their concern?  They were upset with the condition of their breasts.  Yup…  As it turns out, saggy boobs (or, breasts that fall – seins qui tombent) are really worrisome to the women (and men).  They explained that, after breastfeeding, they find their ladies aren’t so perky.  Not only does this make them feel unattractive, but it has larger cultural implications.  This was shocking to me since, after seeing breasts day in and day out in public during breastfeeding, I wouldn’t have assumed they’re a body part that is as sexualized as they are in America.   However, the women said that it leads their men to stray, and the men nodded in agreement…”

Thinking of all of the practically new bras that no longer fit her following pregnancies, Anne C reached out to Charmayne with a proposal: gather bras to distribute in Cameroon to help improve women’s self-image.  Charmayne agreed, and tied the project to a women’s health seminar in her village.  There was a huge response, both here and in Cameroon.  Charmayne distributed the 170(!) bras in her village, and summarized this experience in a piece published in the Peace Corps Cameroon Newsletter.

Recently, Charmayne found this link, suggesting we were onto something back then:

http://www.stuffmomnevertoldyou.com/podcasts/sports-boobs.htm

Anne C was recently prompted by a colleague to try this again, so stay tuned in the near future for Bra Project – Take 2!
…and thank you to everyone who supports women, both literally and figuratively =)

 

Meet the Board: Introducing Chantal Kassa

Good afternoon readers! Here at A2E we have decided to give our readers an insight into the board, and team that works behind the scenes and runs the organization. In this first posting in our Meet the board series we spoke with board-member Chantal Kassa, we hope you enjoy it!

How did you come to the US from Cameroon? What is it that you do?

I came to the United States about ten years ago as a Visiting Faculty for a High School Math teaching position. I later pursued two masters degrees; MA in International Development and Social Change, and  MS in Information Technology both from Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. I also had the opportunity to work with nonprofit organizations in Worcester, the Greater Boston area and Washington DC. Currently I am a math teacher, volunteer in several programs and run a personal scholarship fund for underprivileged students in my home country of Cameroon. My goal is to create a mentorship program for these youths, so that they can learn how to maximize their talents in an environment where the opportunities are limited.

What brought you to A2Empowerment?

I was moved by A2Empowerment’s commitment to improving the lives of young girls in my home country-Cameroon. Investing in a girl child’s education is investing in a nation and a scholarship program geared for young females in rural and suburban areas is not only strategic but timely. As an Education Specialist by profession, volunteering my time and talents in this amazing initiative is a way of giving back to my community and contributing to a good cause.

My background as a Cameroonian who is living in the United States also gives me a unique ability to understand both sides culturally, socially and systematically. For example, I understand the Cameroonian educational system and therefore I know its need as I was a part of the school system, and on the other hand I am an educator in the United States so I understand the framework of our program and how certain things about it can be applied in other countries like Cameroon. Living in Massachusetts has also given me the opportunity to work closely with Anne Chueng, the President who has an inspiring drive and passion for making sustainable change in the lives of these young girls. It has been humbling to be a board member for two years now and I look forward to many years of collaboration. 

What is your role at A2Empowerment?

It has been two years since I have been working with Anne and A2E. I help as need arises in different program areas such as going through applications and selecting students for the scholarship program, spreading the word about A2E, and brainstorming on different fundraising activities. I also serve as the intern and volunteer coordinator and one long term goals is to lead the efforts on grant writing. So far, collaborating with interns, we have a grant writing template and our next steps will be to tailor it for grants that is within the scope of our work.

Tell us about the AWEP-PAN African Conference in New York that you recently attended?

What is AWEP-Pan Africa? What was the goal of the conference?

African Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (AWEP) is an outreach, education, and engagement initiative that targets African women entrepreneurs to promote business growth, increase trade both regionally and to U.S. markets through the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), create better business environments, and empower African women entrepreneurs to become voices of change in their communities.

The program assists African women entrepreneurs in transforming their small and medium businesses by helping in areas of programming, promotion and packaging. AWEP helps women market their products, and also helps them in areas of shipping and distribution. Globally, women make up 50 percent of the global population, 40 percent of the global workforce, yet only own about 1 percent of the world’s wealth. AWEP understands this reality and is striving to provide the platform that will help close the gap with the goal of addressing the millennium development goals of eradicating poverty, and promoting gender equality and empower women.

This Pan-African movement was launched by the Bureau of Education, and U.S. State Department in order to support The African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), a United States Trade Act that was created to give visibility to African businesses and their leadership. Through this Act the AWEP is making African women aware of the opportunities they have through AGOA.

AWEP Pan-Africa has created a system to connect small business efforts in Africa to a larger entity in an attempt to make use of the AGOA, and maximize opportunities that the US and the global community has given to African women. This conference was running alongside UN conferences, which meant several first ladies and UN officials, Ambassadors and other policy makers were in Africa were in attendance.

The Conference focused on a more holistic approach on how to organize the different AWEP branches in Africa. An organized network and system will undoubtedly help women make efficient use of their resources. Of the critical needs identified, finance appeared to be central to the many challenges African women entrepreneurs face. There needs to be more financial exposure for these women, so that they can access funds necessary to pursue their entrepreneurial endeavors. Having public figures like heads of African Central Banks was helpful in this forum, as they committed to pulling their resources to help the best way they can.

Personally, I felt empowered hearing women who use these resources speaking with so much passion. They also expressed how they need their first ladies to help with policy, and help women be better and do better. It was also interesting to see the political and financial aspect of women’s problems and how women lack accountability in the financial sphere, but policy will help them take advantage of this opportunity and build sustainability. Institutional challenges remain an issue, but with better organizing by the female entrepreneurs and more financial literacy skills, they will be in a better position to leverage the opportunity presented by AWEP and AGOA.

AWEP and the opportunities it presents should be directed towards rural women, as they will benefit the most from it. Agrarian women are the ones to look at, as there are more women in rural areas than urban ones. In Africa, women are the backbone of communities and the continent’s greatest potential to unlocking economic growth as they provide the majority of labor with the least amount of resources. AWEP therefore promotes specific industries like textiles, mining, the agriculture business, and craft. It addresses the question of how these African women entrepreneurs can be assisted locally (rural/urban), so that their products can become more visible and exported internationally.

What was A2Empowerment’s role in the conference?

In the A2E Program we have some girls who have pursued higher education, and attending conference like these helps us think of ways we can get our girls to think of income generating activities, and how we can get this mindset to trickle down to girls at the high school level.

It helps us see how we as an organization can tap into AWEP’s resources by preparing our girls and also encourages us to work with rural girls and help them understand financial literacy, as part as our mentoring activities. The idea is to help our girls find passion for something, and then that passion can be translated into an entrepreneurial endeavor so that our girls can capitalize on what they are good at therefore building sustainability.

The conference left me with some questions. How do we get this information to teenagers and help the future generations of women to empower themselves? How do we get the girls to assert themselves and teach them to be proactive? And how we can tap into Cameroon’s own AWEP/AGOA network to see how people have made the most of this opportunity?

Did you meet any interesting people? What was the highlight of the conference?

The highlight of the conference was learning that we can use this opportunity to empower girls and create hope for a young generation of women. We are no longer living in a man’s world so we must create opportunities for women in the most visible fashion.

One of the most interesting people I met was Sheila. She is an Ambassador for Zambia, and believes in women having ‘5-selves’, that is, being accountable for oneself: self-comfort, self-confidence, self-belief, self-esteem, and self-worth. Getting to know all these selves is the journey of knowing oneself, and removing self-doubt and foolishness. We often sell ourselves short and by removing self-doubt this will not happen.

Something I picked up from the conference is that women have always been hardworking, and what they need now is an opportunity to showcase their work. AWEP through AGOA gives great opportunities, but now we must give women the skills and knowledge to take advantage of them. Additionally, AWEP has two seats in the UN, which means their voice can be heard to fight economic injustice with the help of African heads of state.

What piece of advice do you have for young people today who are interested in/want to get involved in Development, Nonprofits and such?

Getting into development requires specific personal values that will make you find your work fulfilling. Those values are based in working for a cause and becoming the agent of change. You also need to be a person with a can-do attitude, whether you intend to work on the ground and in the field or in a more corporate environment. There is no room for a lazy person in development work, and you must know that sometimes you will have to work and not get paid much at all, however the work should be gratifying in itself. You must be a change agent, and try to be part of something bigger than you in order to be part of the development world.

Who We Are–PCV Emily Strauss

Emily Strauss is one of our awesome PCV’s: below is a speech she gave about A2Empowerment in 2011. Thanks to Emily and several others, we’ve only grown and improved as an organization since the time this speech was given!

Emily Strauss benefit speech 2011

 

Good evening.

As Anne just said, I was in Peace Corps Cameroon between 2006 and 2008, and was the lucky volunteer into whose lap this project happened to fall.  I was sitting in the Yaounde transit house, and Sylvie, our Cameroonian funding coordinator, came in and said, “There is an American woman who has been emailing me.  She wants to do something for girls’ education.  Can you do it?”  I didn’t even really think about it, I just said, “Yeah, I can work with that.”  So I started brainstorming and emailing Anne, and A2Empowerment was born, as was our long-lived and rewarding cyber-friendship.

My region was an excellent candidate for this project for several reasons.  The Adamaoua province is one of the least populated and poorest provinces in Cameroon.  Infrastructure is minimal – the only paved road is the one leading to the capital of the next province.  Most of the population is Muslim, and women and girls are often second-class citizens, in every sense of the term.

Cameroon has a very male-dominated and highly sexualized culture.  The school where I taught had six hundred students, only one hundred of them girls.  We lost 20 or 30 girls over the course of every year to pregnancy or marriage.  The reasons were various, but often boiled down to the fact that in large families with limited resources, girls were required to sacrifice their prospects to relieve the burden on their families.  In some cases, this meant marriage; in others, modified forms of prostitution.  The girls most at risk for this were those between 13 and 16 – generally, once girls finished the first three (of seven) years of school, odds were much better that they would finish entirely.  For this reason, we decided to target girls in this age range.

It’s been a while, so the girls with the stories I remember are the ones that I helped select, that came out of my village.  One was a fourteen-year-old who had just begun school whose father was in prison.  One was the daughter of a subsistence farmer whose family lived miles away, on the Central African border.  She was looked after by the pastor in the village, who said that her father cried when he was told that she had been awarded a scholarship, and could go to school the next year.  The day after the scholarship notifications went out, one of my colleagues told me that one of our girls couldn’t accept her scholarship, because her father had promised her to an older husband.  I flew off the handle, got depressed, and thought we would have to find someone else.  My colleague told me not to give up, and we went to talk with her father the next day. (My colleague talked.  I controlled myself).  He agreed to postpone the marriage, and sent his daughter to school the next year.  In area where life is so difficult in general, and for women in particular, you can imagine that these stories are pretty representative of the girls that we help.

A scholarship gives a girl more than just another year in school.  Our scholarships are renewable yearly if a girl’s grades are high enough, and we do renew most of our rewards.  While the program is still new enough that we haven’t graduated many girls, it’s encouraging that most of the girls who enter our program stay in it.  As part of the award, we also include seminars for the girls and their parents.  We educate them on health issues, like AIDS and birth control; we also expose them to the possibilities that can exist for women, even in the Adamaoua, by having role model conferences with professional Cameroonian women.  The girls get to develop friendships – the adults get to see what we’re doing with their daughters, and can take revised attitudes and useful information home to benefit other female children.  It is a truth acknowledged even among the more conservative Muslims in the area that an educated woman will raise a healthy and educated family, increasing the favorable prospects for her children.  Finally, earning a scholarship gives the girls the opportunity – often, the only one they will get – to achieve something and be recognized and rewarded for it.  Our scholarships are renewable yearly if the girls’ grades are high enough.  This means that not only can they put themselves all the way through school if they wish, but that they gain a measure of control and agency over their own lives.  It’s otherwise extremely unlikely they could ever contemplate, or much less achieve these things.

And thats it!

United State of Women

Peace Corp Volunteer, Kathleen Kirsch (served in Education volunteer in Babadjou, West Region 2014-2016), attended a summit called the United State of Women in June. Here’s what she said about her awesome experience:

Myself at the summit

Last week I attended the first White House Summit on women and girls’ issues- the United State of Women. This summit brought together 5,000 women from around the world to focus on “pillars”- topics that included Violence Against Women, Health and Wellness, Economic Empowerment, Entrepreneurship and Innovation, Educational Opportunity, Civic Engagement and Leadership.
The panels and speakers can be viewed here:  https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2016/06/10/white-house-united-state-women-summit

The speakers were amazing, with a highlight being the panel with Oprah and Michelle Obama.

First Lady and Oprah
The two most powerful speeches were by Vice President Joe Biden, who made an impassioned speech about violence against women, and President Barack Obama’s speech, which can be viewed here: https://www.whitehouse.gov/blog/2016/06/14/follow-along-united-state-women
There was a lot of discussion in the panels about Let Girls Learn and girls’ education that directly related to the work A2 Empowerment is doing in Cameroon. I participated in smaller break out sessions which I chose based upon my Peace Corps projects (specifically on HIV/AIDS prevention and as a math and physics teacher). I attended one session on girls’ HIV/AIDS risks and another on getting girls into STEM fields through education.
The summit’s format was large plenary sessions targeting their pillar topics, broken down into panels and solution seminars focusing on best practices for those issue areas. More so than all of the fantastic panelists, it was the women I met throughout the day who are doing grassroots work in women’s health, education and empowerment every day who were awe inspiring.

I’ll close with my favorite part from President Obama’s speech:

“It will take leadership.  It will take the right policies.  It’s going to take creating more opportunities.  It requires us telling each other and our children the right stories — because the stories we tell matter.
We admire the men who shaped our country, and rightfully so, the men we see as heroes — from Alexander Hamilton to Muhammad Ali — for their confidence and their courage in believing they could change our nation, this idea of self-creation, that there’s nothing holding us back.  In them, we see America itself, constantly reinventing itself, fearless, looking out over the horizon at the next frontier.
But our country is not just all about the Benjamins — it’s about the Tubmans, too.  We need all our young people to know that Clara Barton and Lucretia Mott and Sojourner Truth and Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy Height, those aren’t just for Women’s History Month.  They’re the authors of our history, women who shaped their destiny.  They need to know that.
A woman did not magically appear on a space shuttle.  It took Sally Ride’s relentless commitment, Mae Jemison’s boundless courage to shatter that glass ceiling.  A group of California farmworkers — they weren’t just handed their rights.  It took Dolores Huerta organizing and mobilizing, fighting for the dignity and justice they deserved.
Rosa Parks wasn’t simply a tired seamstress who sat down by accident.  She was a civil rights leader with the eye of a strategist and the heart of a warrior.  She had the confidence to board on that bus, the courage to risk her own life and liberty for the sake of ours.  History did not fall into her lap — she seized that moral arc and she bent it with her bare hands in the direction of justice.
That’s the story that’s still being written, today, by our modern-day heroes like Nancy Pelosi or Sonia Sotomayor or Billie Jean King or Laverne Cox or Sheryl Sandberg or Oprah Winfrey or Mikaila Ulmer or Michelle Obama — the countless ordinary people every day who are bringing us closer to our highest ideals.  That’s the story we’re going to keep on telling, so our girls see that they, too, are America — confident and courageous and, in the words of Audre Lord, “deliberate and afraid of nothing.”
That’s the country we love, and I’ve never been optimistic — as optimistic as I am now that we’re going to create a country where everybody, no matter who they are or what they look like or where they come from or who they love, can make of their lives what they will.  And together, we can build a world that’s more just and more prosperous and more free.  That’s a job for all of us.”
We are the United State of Women.
President Obama

Giving Thanks

A2Empowerment scholarships would not be possible without all the help we receive from those in Cameroon. Today, we would like to give a special thanks to Buba Sulle, who serves as an English teacher at GSS Upkwa and president of the Aku Cultural and Development Association (ACUDA). Sulle co-facilitates A2E sessions for the girls and as they working their way through the curriculum, they have seen real improvements in the self-confidence of each girl. ACUDA and Buba Sulle are largely responsible for A2Empowerment’s success in Upkwa and we are so happy to have their help.

Thanks to the awesome PCV, Sean Gray, for passing this info along.

A letter from Buba Sulle to A2Empowerment:

A2E Appreciation

Some letters from our A2E Scholars!

We love receiving feedback from our A2E scholars. At the beginning of the year the girls receive their scholarship contracts:

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At the end of the year we received some great reflections from the girls about how the A2Empowerment scholarship helped them and their families:

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Thanks to our Peace Corp Volunteer, Mary Screen, for sending over the reflections and the great pictures!

A2Empowerment Scholarship Winners

Our A2E Scholarship winners! The photo features our Peace Corp volunteers, Alex & Joyce Hall, along with the principle (left) and vice principle (right)!

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

This photo includes the A2E Scholarship winners and their family members that came to the information meeting for the family contract.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES