Strong women leaders give young girls a voice in Cameroon


Odette avec les enfants du foyer Ngoyan

Odette Kamanzi knows first-hand how powerful education can be for young girls and women living in poverty in Cameroon – and she has seen what happens when women leaders rally together and provide support to younger generations.

“It brings these girls out of their shells, and they talk about their rights, about the violence they experience, and how much they want to fight against child marriages,” says Odette, a sociologist from Québec City who has volunteered with Cuso International several times over the past 10 years. “It gives them a voice and the chance to express what they really want to do in their communities and in society in general.”

Odette is talking specifically about the work of Queens for Peace, an organization she will support as a gender advisor on her third placement in Cameroon, beginning this month. Originally from Rwanda, Odette is the first Canadian volunteer heading out on an international placement since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.

Queens for Peace, a group supported by Cuso International’s partner organization Women in Alternative Action (WAA), brings together the queens of Cameroon – spouses to chiefs and kings – to combat gender-based violence and child marriage. The female community leaders are well-respected in Cameroon society and when they speak out about controversial issues and cultural practices, people listen.

“I love this tradition … women have a strong place in society and they can make a very big impact,” says Odette, who will help design training modules and train the community leaders. “With Queens for Peace, the queens educate the men, and women and young girls, about the consequences of child marriage. There are so many problems with these marriages … the girls can’t finish their studies, they have no financial autonomy, there are unwanted pregnancies, and many young girls die in childbirth.”

The work is not easy, and it can get very complicated, Odette says, because of the patriarchal system in place in Cameroon. But she believes that the women, with training and mentorship, have the power to initiate significant change that over time will provide better opportunities and futures for young girls in Cameroon.

“This work is about improving the lives of women and girls … this is what compels me to go, to provide support and help them move forward,” says Odette, who works at Université Laval and is active within the Rwandan community in Québec.
Odette adds that, for her, volunteering is about giving back. “Canada welcomed me and now I am sharing the knowledge and skills that I have learned here with others.”

In addition to Cameroon, Cuso International plans to send two volunteers before the end of the year to Benin and Colombia. Over the next year, with the global travel advisory recently lifted by the Canadian government, Cuso International hopes to gradually return to pre-pandemic levels of volunteer deployment.

Thanks to our generous donors, Cuso International can support organizations such as Queens for Peace and Women in Alternative Action as they continue breaking ground on important issues like child marriage in Cameroon. Help support our efforts by donating today.