These seed grants were funded by Johnson & Johnson and WomanCare Global via the Women Deliver C Exchange Youth Initiative.
By: Numfor Alenwi Munteh, Cameroon Agenda for Sustainable Development (CASD)
There is an African proverb which says, “The piper – not the dancers – determines the rhythm of music.” Similarly, in Cameroon, traditional rulers – not community members – define cultural and traditional practices that influence attitudes and behaviors.
For centuries, cultural practices and beliefs promoted by traditional leaders (“Fons”) in the North West Region (NWR) of Cameroon have led to high rates of adolescent pregnancy. In many Cameroon villages, people believe that if a man or woman dies without a child, they should be buried with a stone as a sign of disgrace. There is also the be
lief that a newlywed girl must prove her maturity and fertility by giving birth as soon as possible after marriage. These societal pressures make early motherhood a likely outcome for many young women.
In Cameroon, it is estimated that 30% of women aged 20 to 24 have given birth before age 18. Early pregnancy causes many young women to die from complications or experience permanent injury. Of the young women who survive, many must divert their focus away from school and toward motherhood – and may not be able to fulfill their potential or break the cycle of poverty in their families and communities.
Recognizing Fons’ enormous influence over cultural practices in the NWR of Cameroon, the Cameroon Agenda for Sustainable Development (CASD) and I designed the Adolescent Pregnancies- Traditional Rulers Speak Out (AP-TRSO) Project to reduce unwanted pregnancies among adolescent girls. The AP-TRSO Project targets local leaders with the goal of transforming them into public opponents of adolescent pregnancy and encourages them to actively promote adolescent reproductive health and rights. Through radio placements, poster messages, and trainings of the members of the North West Fons’ Union (NOWEFU), this project hopes to spark positive change in community attitudes and behaviors to reduce adolescent pregnancy.
Through a AP-TRSO capacity-building workshop, ten NOWEFU members quickly learned that when a girl becomes pregnant, her future dangles like a candle in the wind. Her education could end, her career prospects could evaporate, and her vulnerability to poverty, exclusion, and dependency could multiply. She could even die while giving birth.
The traditional rulers also learned, and accepted, that when nations and communities promote family planning, adolescent pregnancies can be prevented and maternal deaths can be averted. They realized that the benefits of family planning extend beyond young women: families become more stable and communities develop faster.
From Commitment to Action
In response to this new knowledge, these NOWEFU members committed to take action against adolescent pregnancies in their villages. NOWEFU President and Secretary General of the Cameroon Senate Hon. Fon Teche Njeih made the following declaration:
“We, the Executive Committee of the North West Fons’ Union, today denounce all forms of cultural practices that expose our daughters to early pregnancies. We shall work with the General Assembly of the NOWEFU, and members of our community, to end all cultural and traditional beliefs that predispose adolescents to pregnancies… We have always believed that any culture that doesn’t protect lives and promote development should be extinct. We now see that adolescent pregnancies kill and hinder development. It’s our responsibility to fight against this phenomenon at all costs.” — April 2014
Following the workshop, the NOWEFU formed a taskforce with the AP-TRSO project to design an advocacy campaign, which will use posters and radio placements to share family planning information with community members. The NOWEFU Executive Committee also issued an open invitation to CASD to present a paper on adolescent pregnancy during the main NOWEFU General Assembly later this year. Further, the project is working closely with Hon. Fon Teche Njeih to bring the issue of adolescent pregnancy to parliament and generate national attention around this issue.
Every day, CASD is working toward a brighter future for girls in Cameroon. We are working toward a world where every girl can receive the necessary societal support to delay her first pregnancy, stay in school, and enjoy her sexual and reproductive health and rights.