I’m sitting right now in my new favorite spot in Yaounde- RENATA headquarters-and enjoying the view out the window. Lush, dark green trees interspersed between the hundreds of houses packed onto the hill. Yaounde is so beautiful. I can’t believe that I am leaving in less than four weeks.
My hang spot is RENATA, the only organization of its kind in Cameroon. Their mission is to fight unplanned/unwanted teenage pregnancy, advocate for teen mothers and for victims of rape, and to fight against breast ironing (an injustice unique to Cameroon. Wikipedia it.). To put this mission into action, RENATA goes out to different cities and villages throughout Cameroon to hold leadership training workshops for teen mothers… Many times the workshops allow space for victims of rape and incest to come forward, share their story, and start to heal. Once these young women are trained they become “Aunties” who lead their community in further education and sensitization on the topics of health and sexual violence. RENATA does an incredible job of offering support to victims and sensitizing the community on sexual violence.
Last week I got to see RENATA in action in a sensitization workshop for high schoolers. The facilitator, Sabina, stood in front of 60 students and said, “We are going to start with a delicate topic: Rape.” The whole class giggled, obviously a little uncomfortable. After talking about the dangers of rape and the steps victims should take afterward, she opened the floor for questions. A boy who looked about 17 stood up at the back of the classroom and started to walk towards Sabina as he said, “Who provokes the man to rape? Is it the man or the lady?” Most of the boys in the class erupted into shouts, saying- “THE LADY! THE LADY! THE LADY PROVOKES THE RAPE!”
I stood there with my video camera in horror and disbelief. Since being in Cameroon I thought I had gained a pretty good understanding of the cultural stigma surrounding rape, and I thought I was prepared to hear anything, but when dozens of young men stood enthusiastically to yell that rape was the woman’s fault I was shocked. This is what many, if not most of these boys and girls are taught… and it’s exactly why RENATA is fighting a really difficult battle.
Sabina handled the situation with grace and understanding. She said- “I understand what you are saying, but here is my question: when a six month old baby is raped, does the victim bring that on? If your grandmother was raped, would it be because she brought that on herself?” Those questions really challenged the class, and it was apparent that, for some students, perspectives were changing. If this experience taught me anything it was that fighting for women’s voices to be heard in the face of stigmatization and silence is not just difficult work, it is counter cultural. Although the process may be slow, RENATA is changing Cameroon for the better through grassroots work charged with passion, education, and understanding.
The main reason I love to be at RENATA is their incredible community. Women come in and out all day, some have faced unimaginable pain, but without fail the office is always full of laughter and life. This organization is a constant reminder that in the face of great darkness, light and love is always more powerful.