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Entries in women (7)


Violence Against Women in Cameroon

On November 26th, Thanksgiving, Americans across the country were enjoying their turkey, mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, hardly giving a second thought to the previous day, November 25th.  And what holiday might that be, you ask?  Well, it is no holiday (and there is no turkey eating), but November 25th happens to be the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a day to remember, as, according to the UN (2014), one in three women experience physical or sexual violence during their lifetime.  

Peace Corps Volunteer Haley McLeod talks with students in the village of Nzong about violence 
















In Cameroon, it is a reality that that violence is often an acceptable part of everyday life; hitting animals, children, and in some cases, women, will result in no consequences for the person who commit these acts.  Additionally, violence against women is often intensified by the already existing dynamic of gender inequality.  In general, women are considered to be “inferior,” and are supposed to align with certain cultural roles and norms, or risk being socially outcast.  This gender inequality also exacerbates several health problems concerning women, including HIV infection rates and the level of domestic violence; with an inferior status, women are less capable of negotiating safe-sex practices or contributing to important family decisions.

So, in honor of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women (November 25), Breaking Ground teamed up with Memorial Flavia to educate our local partner community, Nzong, on violence and, in particular, violence against women and girls.  So, our team of three (Carole, from Memorial Flavia, me (Haley), a Peace Corps volunteer working with Breaking Ground, and Joseph, a nurse at the Nzong health center) went to share our perspectives and experiences on violence against women, and increase awareness of violence in the Dschang community.  The lessons, taught to over 150 students ranging from ages 12-18, included topics such as 1) What is violence 2) What is sexual violence and how does it affect women and 3) What are some alternatives to violent behavior?  At the end of the session, Joseph spoke about the physical and mental effects that sexual violence can have on the wellbeing of women and girls.  And then everyone received an orange pin to help spread the word! 

 At the end of the day, though we left the high school bone-tired, our voices raspy from speaking over hundreds of students, our work was a great success.  In order to tackle complicated issues such as gender equality and violence against women, the first step in social change is awareness.  That day, every student in the high school walked out with a small orange ribbon to represent the fight against violence against women.  We can only hope that, will time, our efforts to raise awareness will translate into tangible changes in the life of Cameroonian women.  


Celebrating International Women's Day: Support for Female Entrepreneurs

Today in Dschang, the women from our entrepreneurial program will be proudly marching together, in celebration of International Women’s Day. I was excited to learn that the women had decided to march, because it exemplifies the spirit of mutual support and collective confidence building that are some of our program’s underlying objectives. Last week, I had the pleasure of visiting a number of the participants with Chymène, the class instructor, and saw firsthand the bond that has developed between the instructor and her students, and her pride at their success.  

Many of the participants in the course only had a minimal amount of formal education, and are unused to the formality of tests and homework. Chymène is patient with the women and carefully goes over each week’s work, ensuring that all the women understand each lesson. The section of the curriculum which is most difficult for many is accounting and Chymène was particularly proud to show me the women who now carefully record their daily income and expenses in their books.

When I asked the women what had been the most difficult aspect of the course, almost all agreed that the real challenge was not the class work, but putting that theoretical knowledge into practical use in their own businesses, and that they were grateful for the continual support and advice that Chymène provides. Chymène meets each woman at least once a month to go over their accounts and discuss any growing pains the business may be experiencing. Above, she is at the store of Justine Ndjanbong, watching as students come to purchase food on their way home from school.

So far 55 women have graduated from the class, and registration is under way for the next session. Of the women who have graduated, 16 received loans in September and 16 more are in the process of opening accounts. I hope that, as the program continues, these successful entrepreneurs will become mentors for young women in Dschang looking to start businesses, providing a vision of financial competence and independence, as well as guiding young women through the difficult first steps of launching an entreprise.

Members of Breaking Ground's Women's Entrepreneurial Program marched Thursday, March 8, in Dschang to celebrate International Women's Day.


Turning hopes into goals

In February I will be traveling back to Cameroon to meet the latest grant recipients, visit the new nurseries and discuss the nuts and bolts of our programs with Paul and our partner organizations. My most important task, however, will be to listen.

The defining principle of Breaking Ground is that Cameroonians know best what they want and need and that it is not our place to come in with unilateral solutions. Much of our work, therefore, is to spend time with community members, earning their trust, learning about their struggles, and providing a forum for them to transform their hopes into goals.

Around the holiday season, those of us lucky enough to live in relative prosperity are often reminded that we take our creature comforts -- running water, electricity, and easy access to fairly affordable and nutrient rich food -- for granted and are asked to donate to those less fortunate. What we are less likely to be reminded of is that those of us who have been blessed with a strong education and a supportive community have also been given a sense of entitlement, a spirit of agency and a belief that if something is broken, we can probably fix it.

Empowerment is a buzz word, used so much in the non-profit landscape that we can stop hearing it.  However, the effects of listening and responding to an individual’s needs are real. As Haira, one of our Women's Entrepreneurial Program graduates put it, the class helped her learn her own value and the value of the work she does.

In Cameroon, we work with communities like Doumbouo and Foreke-Dschang that are already full of entrepreneurial zeal and have their plans drawn up. But we also work with communities that haven’t yet dared to give voice to their hopes, such as the villages of Folepi and Nkong where resources are too limited for villagers to save for their own medical expenses, let alone plan to improve their hospital. Here, our income generation programs will give the community the funds to invest in their hopes and the confidence to believe that together they can accomplish their goals.

Click here to watch a video made by our recent summer intern, Maddie Spagnola, that brings the WEP classes to life, and includes exerts of my meeting with Haira.


Microfinance: “Just one of the possible arrows in the fight against poverty”

Thanks to organizations like Grameen and Kiva, microfinance and investing in entrepreneurs has received a lot of media attention over recent years.  Breaking Ground is excited to have moved in this direction in 2010, but we are aware that it is not a silver bullet. First and foremost, the Women’s Entrepreneurial Program teaches valuable skills, creates a supportive community and encourages women to imagine, and then materialize, a better future.  We added a financing element to respond to a real need in the community and we have determined that loans are the best method to ensure the sustainability of the program: when women repay their loans it is deposited into a fund for future graduates of the business class.

Before making the transition to loans, we spent a lot of time researching the pros and cons of microfinance models, and have designed an approach that we believe will be effective for years to come. 

Community Appropriate:

One of the central values of Breaking Ground, is that each program must be designed with the community it serves, so that it meets the unique needs of that community. Our approach is specific to the needs of the women in each community. This means we change the course and the loan model for each group with whom we work. 

Low interest rates:

Many microfinance institutions charge high interest rates, to cover the high risk of lending,  but because Breaking Ground is providing the capital for the loans, our partners are willing to take a much greater risk than usual, at a greatly reduced rate. We have negotiated a 5% interest rate with our microfinance partners. Of this 5%, 2.5% goes to the bank, to cover the cost of servicing the loan, and the other 2.5% goes back into Breaking Ground’s WEP fund to cover the risk of default.

A flexible repayment schedule:

Breaking Ground works with each of our entrepreneurs to establish a repayment plan, before she receives her loan. These plans take into account the specific timeline of her business and when repayment will be feasible.  This gives women the flexibility necessary to make bold moves and take substantial steps forward.

The size of our loans:

Breaking Ground understands that part of entrepreneurship is making big moves, so we give loans that range from $200 to $1000, depending on the experience and needs of each entrepreneur.

Recipient selection:

Loan recipients are selected by a committee that consists of members of Breaking Ground, members of GADD (the organization that runs the course),  representatives from our partner microfinance institution, and two of the women’s peers. This selection process ensures that each recipient’s business plan is carefully evaluated from many perspectives before being selected.

Size matters:

Because we aren’t looking to make a profit, we keep not only our interest rates, but the number of women receiving loans, low. This allows us to give each woman the support that she needs to succeed.

The title for this blog post, is a quote from "Poor Economics" by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning in more detail, about the role of microfinance in the developing world.



Program Development: Health & Social Indicators Survey

As I mentioned in a previous blog post, whilst in Cameroon this June, one of my projects was conducting our Health and Social Indicator Survey (HSIS) with women in the neighborhoods where we work. In both N'gaoundéré and the Lebialem Valley, I interviewed a cross section of women of various ages and, whenever possible, ethnic groups. Some women were current or past participants of the WEP, others were the friends and neighbors of these women; people we would like to see signing up for a program in the future.

These surveys will serve a number of purposes.  Firstly, the data they provide gives us improved knowledge of the women that we are working with and will provide tracking points to see the impact of our programs over time. Secondly, the survey allows us to see where we should focus our attention, if we start to integrate a health curriculum into our classes.

The WEP classes are a safe, supportive space and a designated meeting time.  It seems a perfect opportunity to deliver basic family health information to our participants and, through them, to their wider communities. We are a long way from having a curriculum written and a trained health professional working with our teachers, but this survey is the first step in that direction.

Since I brought home the results, Alden Blair, one of our board members, has been huddled over his computer analyzing the data. Many of the findings supported our experiences in the community, but the statistical results are still quite astounding.

Some highlights of our findings:

  • There was no uniform knowledge of HIV/AIDS transmission methods, and thus perhaps understandably there was a great deal of interest in HIV/AIDS (and other STI) education.
  • The costs of receiving healthcare (transport to a facility, cost of the visit or cost of medecine) was cited as the main barrier to care by the majority of women.

  • Across the board, hand washing is a clear area for intervention. Though most participants recognized the need to use soap and water (we were unable to follow up and see if they a. owned soap and b.used it regularly) knowledge of when washing was needed was low.

  • In the Lebialem Valley, a majority (64%) of the women stopped attending school due to the financial burden of school fees. Half the women had only received a primary level education.

  • In the Lebialem Valley, 17% of women surveyed treat their water, though only occasionally and with crude filtration methods.

  • In N'gaoundéré, the water source was often a public pump, a source that is likely to have been treated. However 76% reported that this source had been unavailable at least once in the past month.

Hopefully, our programs that increase family income and show the economic advantage of educating young girls, will eventually lead to more girls staying in school longer.  The findings also confirm the importance of a crop diversification program in the Lebialem Valley that will improve the communities' access to a variety of nutrients, as well as generate income to increase access to healthcare. Other findings, such as those concerning water filtration and hand washing, are areas that a future health curriculum could address directly.

One thing that was clear across the board, was that the women surveyed are hungry to learn. I hope that as we move forward with this information, we will be able to answer their questions and empower women to take care of themselves and their families.

Like most Breaking Ground initiatives, the design and implementation of the survey was a collaborative effort. Thank you to Claire Espey MPH, Mailman School of Public Health, for her careful critiques and TRADADEV for their translation services. If you have questions about the survey content or our findings, please contact us.