Feminist development policy – A new beginning?


Cameroonian gender and peace activist Marthe Wandou has been campaigning for girls and women for more than 30 years. In the interview, she calls for a feminist development and foreign policy as a future guide – and sees hurdles, but above all potential.

© GIZ/Sven Schuppener 2020

By Marthe Wandou

The gender and peace activist Marthe Wandou has been committed to preventing and combating sexualised violence against girls and women since the 1990s.

All contributions

By Jan Rübel

Jan Rübel is author at Zeitenspiegel Reportagen, a columnist at Yahoo and writes for national newspapers and magazines. He studied History and Middle Eastern Studies.

All contributions

When did you first hear of a Feminist Foreign Policy?

It is eight years ago. I learned that Sweden had adopted a Feminist Foreign Policy as the first country ever. At the first time I couldn’t understand why they used this term because we were originally talking about gender. Hence, I was wondering: What was the difference between feminism and gender? But when I read thoroughly the manual of this concept, I understood that this policy is focused on the rise of women, the women’s rights and women’s participation. That convinced me. The Swedish government said they want to implement this policy related to the realities in the world.


Is it important that states formally declare it, as the German government has done in its coalition agreement?

It is very important. To declare is a commitment. When a state is committed to a certain policy, a follow-up mechanism can be built. And the responsibility of the state can be called when these engagements are not respected. It must be written down.


Libya did that too. How feminist are politics in Libya?

I am not in a deep contact with Libyan Foreign Policy. Hence, I can hardly afford to judge. But for Libya, as an African country, it is a great step to show this declaration to the African states. In our patriarchal systems that we have on the continent, the leaders think that feminism is kind of European idea. They assume that it is only theoretical and difficult to practise. Libya gives another example.


Feminism is a global issue…

…of course. And it is necessary to use it as an approach. It can help stakeholders to see exactly how to analyse their relationships and to analyse the activities, the output. The impact of every program and every project on men but also on women is to be examined: What is the gap? What is needed to be done for women’s rights?  


There is a lot to do?

Yes, let us take Cameroon, for example.


Women are not considered as people with skills and intelligence - as persons who also can be leaders.


This is due to traditions and cultures of our patriarchal system. It is important to call the attention on that but also to strengthen the capacities of the states in order to show them more examples and the necessity of change.  


Patriarchal structures have been entrenched globally over many centuries. What is your conclusion? Have these failed to manage the world?

She laughs. Let us say yes. Patriarchal structures are mostly related to power. When women are accepted, it appears to be a favour.


If women would have been actively involved in policies worldwide, the planet would be different.


For instance, we have so many wars, or terrorism – these are man’s areas, women are not involved. If you bring in women into dialogues and peace processes, we can learn more and take profit from their skills. Men and women can sit together and reflect together.


Is thus such a declaration a new beginning?

Sure. Maybe not in terms of activities but in terms of commitment. Having a Feminist Foreign Policy would engage related states to enter into dialogues. Other countries can learn how to implement this policy. It is a new beginning.


Does this also mean for development projects: No consideration of women's rights, no project?

Absolutely. For each project, there is a need to show exactly the link with women’s rights and women’s representation in terms of outcome and impact.


Has development policy neglected the support of women in recent years?

Maybe it was not neglected, but it was not an obligation. Sometimes, gender issues are written down in documents just to fill the obligation in the form. But in terms of implementation, in terms of following and seeing the impacts – it was very little. There wasn’t a commitment to show exactly what would be the change.  


Hence, it has to leave the papers and go outside. You said recently: "Germany is a model of gender implementation" - what does that mean in concrete terms?

I am in contact with German organizations since 1993 when I started to work in development. The first time I was trained on gender issues was with a German organization. Between 1998 and 2005, we had a gender program to build the capacities of Cameroonian organizations in gender. We worked on women’s leadership and on women in the natural resources management – on many topics related to gender, supported by the former German organization InWEnt (nowadays part of GIZ). Compared to other partners I am working with, German institutions place more value on gender issues.


Why that?

I don’t know, but there have been some disappointments in the past, too. Some years ago, married women who applied for a visa for Germany were asked by the embassy to bring a written authorisation by the husband that allowed to go abroad. But since the eighties, Cameroonian women were not obliged to have this permission. Hence, I was disappointed that the authorities continued to ask for it. Some women didn’t get their visa because they were not in good terms with their husbands, sometimes they were separated but not yet divorced. When the husbands refused to sign, the women’s projects ended. I went to the embassy and complained about it. After some time, they corrected it.


What brought you to work on gender issues?

I worked with a German colleague on increasing income capabilities for women. She was a DED volunteer from Germany and we talked a lot about gender issues.


At this time women had to rely on their husbands' consent to make weighty decisions. These women always said: “If my husband accepts” or “If my husband decides”.


More of 80% of them were illiterate, they did not have access to school. There was a great need to start something with girls – to make sure that in 10 or 15 years, we have another sample of women in this area, women who can decide for themselves and who see themselves in leadership positions. But in my view the organization’s approach for women empowerment at that time was not yet progressive enough, so I started working with girls on my own.


Which year was that?

In 1998. A tipping point was when once I met two girls in the street. The elder one was 10, and the younger one 8. They sold items there, and somebody tried to rip one of them. They started crying because they did not know what to do. I watched it, took them to their parents and they told me that they did not have the means to send their daughters to school. What the girls sold in the street was the base of their food at home. Institutionally there was no way to support them, so, I started to help them by myself, paid their school fees. Slowly, I realized that this is the way to follow and I resigned.


This is more then 20 years ago. What happened to the girls?

I’m still in contact with them. One is a teacher now and the other is at the university. Two weeks ago, she received a scholarship from a Canadian organization for getting IT training in the Cameroonian capital. Now, they are equipped with many skills and they have a clear vision what they want to do. And their parents are still committed to the other children they have.


Earlier you told me that in Cameroon, there is the tradition of seeing men as more intelligent. And then you witness the development of these two girls…

The reality is different. When I was young, we as girls were the three of five first in the class – always ahead of the boys. At that time, they beat us and asked: “What do you want to show off?”. As I said: The patriarchal structure is related to power, not to competence or achievement. Men see women as rivals, like in a competition.


But it would be better to see men and women together to build a better world.


When the political elite is controlled by men – how to convince them that they should share? Then, they would lose power.

I think it is a process. A dialogue. Now, in Cameroon 32% of the members of parliament are women…


…in Germany, it is 31%...

Really? Germany could also work with political leaders to review the election system to make sure that in each political party, at lists or candidacies for parliaments, women are better represented. We need to strengthen a policy of no violence in schools. We have a law against violence in schools but gender based violence is not yet an issue in schools. We need the will of the state to get these written sentences into practise. And this is a starting point for international organizations, for the German state, to support.


You said that a declaration for Feminist policy is a starting point for dialogue processes with other countries. What should they look like?

First, Germany could elaborate a manual explaining the Feminist Development Policy in order to make them understand this new commitment and the change Germany likes to see in terms of cooperation. Secondly, Germany should also get engaged with political leaders and try to change their mindsets. This would help states like mine a lot because at the political leadership and at the management positions, women want to show their skills and that they can do better – and they are frustrated.


And what if the politicians addressed don't get involved and don't open up for women's rights?

Then you have to look for other ways. By example, working with civil society is a possible strategy. Embassies should be more flexible collaborating directly with women at the top of civil society organizations. There is a lot that can be done to foster girl’s education and women’s rights on the ground. Civil society can also build a body to follow up the commitment of the states in terms of their engagement.


What will the world look like, say in ten years' time, in terms of women's rights?

First, we need to get all the boys and girls to school which is until now not the reality in the Cameroonian context. And secondly, my vision is to have a clear policy at the leadership positions. In my region, we don’t have a single female mayor. Sometimes, you find a female deputy mayor or second deputy mayor. Hence, I see women as mayors in ten years. It is time.

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