Found in Translation

Students promote women’s rights in Cameroon

by Mary Kate Skehan '12

It was only their first week studying abroad last spring in Yaoundé, Cameroon, when Sarah Wright ’12 and Colleen Cadman ’12 were pulled into a project with global significance. 

Susan Rose ’77, professor of sociology and director of the Community Studies Center, was conducting sabbatical research on cross-cultural sexual violence. Because of their strong French-language and interpersonal skills, Wright and Cadman were asked by Rose to interpret sexual-violence survivors’ personal accounts from French into English. 

Cadman and Wright soon found themselves immersed in a social issue that would come to define much of their study-abroad experience. While sexual assault was a hot topic on Dickinson’s Carlisle campus, these two students worked firsthand with the issue an ocean away.

“We had no idea what we were getting into,” recalls Cadman.

On the first day of their involvement with Rose’s research, Wright and Cadman translated stories of sexual abuse from 11 Cameroonian women for the Global Clothesline Project. The project is a way for women who have been victims of sexual violence to begin to heal by expressing their experience on a shirt or other garment, and Rose has worked on the project for more than 15 years. The testimonies of Cameroonian women, along with those of victims from Bosnia, the Netherlands, Venezuela and the United States, will be included in her upcoming documentary about the Global Clothesline Project.

“They all wanted to tell their stories,” explains Cadman. “Translating was tough. I hope I did them justice.”

Continuing dialogue

Wright, an international-studies and French double major, and Cadman, an international business & management major with a French minor, next decided to explore other opportunities to work with women’s rights issues in Cameroon. After the first Clothesline Project event, they began internships with Maya Initiatives (MI). Run and funded by local anchorwoman and community activist Pochi Tamba Nsoh, the organization seeks to support survivors of sexual violence through dialogue, outreach and a scholarship program.

Each week, Wright, Cadman and two other Dickinson students—Anna Hershner ’12 and Claire Pizzurro ’12—met with Nsoh to learn more about gender-based violence and women’s rights and to plan MI’s events and activities. The interns created a blog and Flickr account to publicize MI’s mission and participated in an all-women’s discussion of gender violence at a local Baptist church.

In their last weeks in Cameroon, the interns worked with MI and with RENATA, a Cameroonian group that supports teenage mothers and helps build strong women’s communities, to organize another Clothesline Project event.

Participants responded well to the event, and Cadman and Wright are optimistic about the impact NGOs like MI and RENATA are having on the gender climate in Cameroon.

Overcoming silence

Wright notes that silence and stigma are the greatest challenges to stopping gender-based violence in Cameroon. “They aren’t very loud about it in the schools, on the streets,” Wright explains. “The objective [of the Clothesline Project] is that they talk about it.”

Wright and Cadman note some important differences between the Yaoundé events and the one held at Dickinson every year since 1993. In Yaoundé, they explain, the Clothesline Project was held in a space so secure that the students had to show their passports to gain admittance. While both men and women are welcome at the Britton Plaza event, Wright and Cadman agree that the participants in Cameroon would not have shared their stories if men had been present.

The opportunity to participate in this organization contributed to a holistic study-abroad experience for the two students, combining the study of language and culture with firsthand observations of the social constructs they were learning about.

“I didn’t know how passionate I was about women’s rights until I suddenly and unexpectedly became involved with the Clothesline Project and Maya Initiatives,” says Wright. “My Cameroon experience became about women’s rights and education.”

Published March 29, 2013