With the International Women’s Day, 8 March 2022, approaching we talked to some of our partners on how their advocacy work for gender equality today builds a sustainable tomorrow for women in their communities
Meet Caryn Dasah, the founder of Hope Advocate Africa, who talked to us about her work. Caryn is a gender-based violence caseworker, peacebuilder, social justice, and gender equality advocate. She is also a member of the Beijing+25 Youth Task Force and was recently elected General Coordinator of the Cameroon women’s peace movement, a constellation of women-led civil society organisations.
Caryn was born in Econa in the South West region and grew up in Momo division in the North West Region of Cameroon.
Tell us a little about your childhood?
The internet wasn’t a big part of my childhood; we did not have access to social media. Mobile phones and television were luxury items; those who owned them were considered wealthy. We would play at night and listen to folk tales. I grew up going farming with friends and hunting.
A lot has changed. Currently, there is an armed conflict where I grew up, children are scared, and parents no longer allow them to go out unaccompanied. With the invention of social media and as a way to keep themselves occupied, children now play with mobile phones, on laptops and spend a lot of time on television. It’s a bit different from when I grew up; we had more human contact with our grandparents listening to folk tales and had what we called “Arabian nights”. I can’t help but feel like a part of our culture is getting lost.
How did you end up as a social worker/activist?
As a young girl, I realised that there were a lot of acts of violence, especially towards women and girls. That shaped part of me because I realised that must be the reason some girls were not able to stay in school. Some girls stopped midway when they fell pregnant. Once a girl fell pregnant, they were shamed and hid. This meant they were not economically empowered. Instead, they became housewives who were then maltreated and battered.
I wanted to create change, so I founded “Hope Advocate Africa” in 2015. My organisation provided legal, social, and psycho-social services for women and young girls. We monitored, made referrals and ensured that women and girls who were victims of gender-based had access to justice. The biggest impediment in our judicial system is nepotism ‘who do you know’. The majority of the people will not go to the police or file a complaint to the State Council as they know no one, so they don’t think they would get help or justice. I, therefore, act as the ‘whom they know’ for them to help them get justice. Sometimes it’s true, but most of the time, in these cases, it’s not true. I go with women who have been battered to the State Council and support them.
After my undergraduate, I volunteered for two years with the social centre, under the Ministry of Social Affairs. All-day, every day it was about child warfare, the same complaints came up, ‘I have a child with man X who is now seeing another woman, ‘We’ve been together for ten years, and my man is now seeing another woman, ‘ My husband has beaten me’ etc. 99% of the victims were women who they felt wasted by the men in their lives. They had lived ten years with a man; they had babies, thought they were a little out of shape, and the man suddenly changed. Due to lack of money, the man maltreats them because they are not legally married, a marriage certificate makes women feel more secure.
I started wondering how to help women/girls in their prime years. How to help them see that they not only belong to the kitchen, they don’t have to be just wives and mothers. They can be leaders, earn an income and pursue their passions. Life doesn’t stop/end when one becomes a mother or wife. We invested in advocacy and rebuilding non-existence structures in communities. We empowered women to upskill themselves to enable them to make a living. We sought justice for victims of gender-based violence and worked with women to help them regain their self-esteem.
Who inspired you to get into advocacy & activism?
I was about 15 years when I got into civil society. I was fortunate to be close to people who ran organisations that had programs for young girls. I would attend these programs and sometimes facilitate. I would volunteer with organisations during school holidays and go into dangerous places and into the bush to help. My parents were not comfortable, especially as I earned nothing from it.
I kept at it despite my parents’ disapproval. After my undergraduate, I continued volunteering with civil society organisations. I tend to think I was inherently drawn to advocacy and activism.
What has been the highlight of your career?
When I became an ambassador of the Generation Equality Task Force, it was spearheaded by UN Women in New York. I was the only person from the Central African Region. Our role was to ensure that youth voices were heard in the Belgian declaration.
The second Transfigurative forum was held in Paris which I attended. I felt so fulfilled to see young people find their space within the development sector. I saw young women advocating for the same issues I do. Being in that room as a grass-roots activist, as I refer to myself, in every international space, is a way for me to remind others that whoever you are, where ever you come from, doesn’t define who you become. Another highlight in my life is being elected the General Coordinator of the National Women’s movement. Being in this position allows me to bring young Cameroonians to the decision-making table; many voices create a choir one voice sometimes isn’t loud enough.
What challenges have you faced while doing what you do?
There are several. As a young unmarried woman and very active in the advocacy space, people always tell me, “ooo young girls like you don’t get married”.
Intergenerational conflicts, especially while working with mothers and older women. There are limited conversations around intergenerational co-existence. This is because sometimes when you want to do specific things, it feels like they would be asking, “Who is this? How old is she? We’ve been here for 40/50 years. She is just a kid”. They may not know that you are working with the younger generation, training and building them. We all have to work together as each generation has different viewpoints.
Most of the places that my job takes me are very unsafe. They are remote abandoned, with no internet access or electricity. When I go into rooms in Paris and other major events, I take the voices of the people in these areas with me. I bring up the issues in these regions hoping that they will be addressed. One day someone will hear me.
Who inspires you?
I have so many women who inspire me, Madam Mireille Tushiminina, a Congolese with the UN, a peace and security expert par excellence. I met her in Cameroon. She doesn’t let titles define her and has a saying that I love quoting, “we don’t look at the money, we look at the impact”.
Do you think being a woman it’s harder for you in the world?
I think I am stronger because I am a woman, but then that’s all I know how to be.
What do you hope the future holds?
I hope for a future where women can stand up for their rights and be part of the decision-making processes in our society. I want women to live their best life, to be empowered to achieve their passions. I want to see an end to the anglophone crisis in Cameroon, the bloodshed, the killings, kidnappings, harassment, rape and everything. I want it to come to an end so that we can rebuild bigger and better.
And what can you tell young women?
“Young girls, you are beautiful the way you are. You can be a doctor if you want to be, you can be a teacher if you want to be, work hard, be consistent and keep the company of people that inspire you. Seek mentorship from people you look up to. You are your own biggest inspiration; don’t let anybody intimidate you.”