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Save young widows, save girls, protect the next generation

Each time Mamissi meets me, she invariably tells me, “Whatever will not kill me will only make me stronger”. She says these words and lets me see whether she has lost or gained weight (so I can assess whether she is healthy or stressed), then goes on to tell me the latest about her emotions, activities and children. Today, she tells me about the latest milestones in her battle to get back the savings that her late husband had in a “Njangi” (small informal association of friends who put funds together to support one another). Even before she starts, her eyes have already told me something positive has happened. What a change!

The past few months have been months of tears, during which, she would cry with despair, “If you have not lived it, you can’t understand. If you have not gone through it, you may not be able to get what it is like!”

This statement took me months back: when my husband drove our family car under a heavy speedy truck, he was declared dead and that is the news that rapidly spread. From the various reactions, messages and comments that followed, I could picture what awaited my children and me, in terms of traditions and rituals. For a short time, which looked like eternity, I felt so vulnerable, so lost, so helpless. I had the opportunity to quickly mentally review the status, hurdles and challenges of young widows: being emotionally, psychologically, financially, sometimes educationally handicapped, all of these at the same time, can be horrible. That sense of loneliness, misunderstanding and hopelessness generated uncountable “why, why, why, how, how, how” to my mind and brought the widows across the globe to my heart.

Fortunately for me, my husband was not dead, he was under shock, but not dead! Thousands of my fellows have not had that luck and like many of them, Mamissi is trying to put the pieces of her life together after the death of her husband. It is especially difficult for her because the culture does not accept the death of young men. It is always someone’s fault, mostly the wife’s fault. Many widows despair and lose joy as they go through the process of funerals, rituals, traditions, etc. Added to their emotional and psychological trauma, they are young, they are poor, many are illiterate, they are mothers and they are neither supported by their families nor the society. In fact, it seems to be fashionable to find witches in every young widow.

As young as 25 years old, Mamissi became a lonely mother of three. Yet, giving up would betray the life ideal that her husband and she dreamt of, for both themselves and their children. Continuing the journey without him is hard, but she tells me she is willing to take up the challenge.

They are many Mamissis in Cameroon, made widows by different kinds of fatalities. With the hundred casualties from the Boko Haram terrorism acts and dangerous immigration ventures, the numbers are increasing at an amazing rate. Statistics are not authorized by the government for public communication, but the numbers are shockingly high, according to the reports of different offices that attend to these women (places of worship, public offices, NGOs, community groups). Besides, and this is the most difficult for me, testimonies from Mamissi, Mira, Merline and others confirm a report by Charis, a sister organization that states: With Cameroonian authorities and UN agencies now placing their focus and high priority on refugees, the young widows’ cases are not being well taken care of. Given the current state of things, health, hunger and other challenges are very likely to lead them to prostitution and turn their children into wayward/street children. Out of the +4000 street children interviewed by INS a couple of years ago, more than 85% are involved in prostitution and about 57% of them are orphans. Besides, CameroonOnline media (2016) numbers about 10 millions of sex workers from different nationalities. The widows who are involved say that they were following their deceased husbands’ families’ advice to "support themselves". For many of them, easy ways included prostitution. Yet, they desire a better future for their families. At the same time, they report that family members and staff in companies they have appealed to are hiding behind women’s equality claims to reject their request for support (mostly opportunities of empowerment, capital to start an income generating activity, etc). Culturally, men are known to face hardship without help while women tend to be supported. Claiming equality is interpreted as a being capable of caring for themselves and their children without help.

In our organization, we desire to see more comfort, compassion, and support for the widows, especially the young widows with little children. Security, Education and Care Network for Empowerment and Transformation (SECNET-DEV’T) exists so that women are listened to, supported, cared for and empowered to make life beautiful for themselves and for their community.

Being emotionally, psychologically, financially, sometimes educationally handicapped, all at the same time, can be horrible. And yet, widows have value, they can contribute to a better community life, and their children look to them for education, food and shelter, vision and dreams, hope and a future.

My heart cries out for them each time I see the large array of opportunities they are denied or do not have the capacity to tap into. Many positive laws and decisions have been made by the government in support of widows, but concrete actions and tangible solutions are few and weak because of societal rules or their own limitations. Cultural norms such as widows’ dependence on husband’s family for decisions concerning the future or disowning widows from their family’s property are still very much an obstacle to facilitating the protection, security, and empowerment these women need. From experience, I know that if they are instead given an opportunity to learn, if their capacity is built, they will make a significant difference for themselves, their families and the environment.

Because widows have lived the nightmare of untimely death due to different causes, they are more likely to act to eradicate these causes of death. We therefore see them as potential social change advocates and implementers, as well as advisers for the next generations. For example, and that is one of our solutions (one thing we are empowering them for), their engagement in violence-free children’s education that teaches the values of tolerance and mutual acceptance would reduce the impact of terrorism, as the number of potential recruits would drop in the long-term. In addition, rallying organizations that work against gender violence for a joint message to the communities and the government, care and support to the young widows in the form of skills development and a capital to start a small business, and other empowerment actions are ways in which we are already helping widows in their attempt to tackle the problems they face. In the mid term, we will prioritise advocacy with traditional leaders to work on shifting cultural norms.

Mamissi’s smile this morning comes from her successful process to start a livestock business. She is completing a training and has found a good place to rent for her business. SECNET-DEV’T has given her financial assistance and the saving from her husband’s njangi will help expand the business. She has good ideas on how to make this a durable endeavour; her new skills help build her confidence and we look forward to standing by her.

A smile on a woman’s face is an indicator of and at the same time such a great input into a more equitable society! I grew up smiling, I enjoy seeing women smile! When they do, it is sure more people will smile.

We want to bring about that smile through trauma healing processes, advocacy for the protection of young widows and empowerment programmes for widows. They desire to put their life pieces together again; we stand by them and will together make that happen.

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