Meet Zoneziwoh Mbondgulo-Wondieh—a powerhouse among young African feminist activists. Zo, as she is known, lives in Buea, in South-West Cameroon in Central Africa, but the world is her stage. She founded her feminist advocacy organization, Women for a Change, Cameroon (Wfac) in 2009, when she was a mere 23 years old.
Fast forward to 2022: Zo has become a highly respected voice for young women in Cameroon, and Central Africa more broadly. In 2019, she launched a Central African advocacy platform, GenEgalité ECCAS, to advance women’s rights in the sub-region. Recently, she was appointed to the civil society advisory group for the Generation Equality Forum, the 2021 world gathering of government leaders, civil society organizations and corporate CEOs committed to accelerating progress on women’s rights on the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing.
Zo is passionate about ensuring young women can enjoy sexual and reproductive health and control their bodies and sexuality, but she is also mobilizing action in Central Africa and the Great Lakes region on climate justice and on ending gender-based violence. She and her small team of four people at Wfac use a variety of strategies to advance women’s and girls’ rights: direct advocacy with political and traditional leaders; campaigning and raising public awareness, and training other activists and groups on capacity building. Her passion is ensuring that young women’s demands and perspectives are heard on the key issues affecting them, in their community, their country and ultimately, the world. I had the most uplifting conversation with her over Zoom on February 16, 2022. This is just a portion of what we discussed, and we could have kept going! My comments are added in square brackets.
FG: How and why did you decide to start your own feminist organization?
ZMW: In my final year of university studies in science, I took a course on women and land rights. That was my introduction to gender I would say—my consciousness moment! So, I decided to volunteer with organizations working on women’s issues… I’m talking about 2005, 2006. At that time, less than 0.5% of organizations were led by women under the age of 30. In Buea, where I am based, I did not see any organizations led by young women. Most organizations were led by senior women, who are established, who have so-called social status, you know—married women. I did not even see organizations led by women who were not married. And the conversations in those groups were about widowhood, inheritance.In those spaces, I wasn’t feeling a close connection, because inheritance wasn’t a problem for me, at that moment. Land rights… I mean, you are 20, you are not thinking about owning land.
So, when we, the young women, wanted to talk about intimate partner violence—first, there was that taboo. “At your age, you are still a child, why should you be talking about sex…!” and so on. So, we couldn’t even talk about it, or bring it to the table.
This is how Women for a change [Wfac] came about. I thought it would be important for us to have a space, just as young women, to organize ourselves, so that when we get in those spaces, we can better speak in one voice. If a sister raises something and we are three or four in that space, we say the same thing, so that it will be captured. Particularly around sexual and gender-based violence.In 2010, I felt I cannot be doing this without theoretical understanding, so I did a Masters at Aberdeen University in Gender, Sex and Violence Studies. My dissertation was on movement building and leadership. Now, I’m doing my PhD on those topics. That has been my journey.
FG: That’s fantastic Zo… How amazing! Tell me about the name “Women for a change,” and the strategies you chose. Why the focus on social movements and movement building?
ZMW: I saw the power we had as young women then, to critically influence. Because when we attend some of these meetings and we speak in that collective voice, the women listen, the people listen. And that has been what has really inspired and reshaped the work that we do at Wfac, to make us focus more on movement building—because when you come in as a group, it is difficult for people to resist. So, that is the power I saw as a collective, to really influence. And that tool, that tactic, we have used successfully to inspire and ignite national conversations.For instance, with the Generation Equality [Forum], we were able to lobby our government [Cameroon] to make commitments in the Action Coalition on GBV [gender-based violence]. So, these are all successes as a result of our collective action.
FG: What propelled you to begin working beyond Cameroon?
ZMW: When we come to those [UN diplomatic] spaces in New York, we noticed that these countries in Central Africa, the francophone [countries], they are just lost, or completely absent, and we are not seeing strong activism, nationally.So that’s why we decided to make the Generation Equality campaign sub-regional, to see how we can collectively boost activism nationally, as well as sub-regionally. And today we have the GenEgalité ECCAS (Economic Community of Central African States) platform. We have 55 [feminist activist] members across the 11 countries [Angola, Burundi, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, São Tomé and Principe]. We have 13 organizations, and the rest are individuals. We are testing the concept, and every day, we learn from what we do.
FG: How have you managed to do this organizing work during a pandemic?
ZMW: Most of the members of the GenEgalité ECCAS, we have not met in person. So that shows the level of trust! Yes! We all share that common desire, to actually build that community … like the sisters in Chad … we were there in Chad last year and we met some of the members for the first time. There are those in Equatorial Guinea who have joined this year, we have not met them, yet. So, we hope we can mobilize the needed resources to be convening every year for a General Assembly. And there is one other thing which I really admire: the fact that these are paid memberships.
FG: That’s hugely impressive. [FG as an aside: It’s very hard to get any group to pay membership dues to a network, I can assure you!]
ZMW: Yes, for someone to not know you, they read about [your work], and they are willing to pay to become a member, I don’t know how else I can describe that, but that is trust. There is that hunger for transformation. And people are willing to commit to make sure that we build the sub-region that we want.
FG: How have they heard about you? How do you publicize what you do?
ZMW: Online, on Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. We share and encourage others to share. It just gets out. The feeling is just so, so great! For someone not to know you, but to really commit, it takes a lot. That’s why I give it my all, because we cannot let the women down, the girls down.
FG: What activities do you conduct to build the capacity of your GenEgalité members?
ZMW: We have a monthly meeting to identify common issues in activism. We also invite experts to speak to us, give lectures or training. We are also able to build the capacity of the organizations in our group, on strategy, financial management, values and principles grounded in feminism, resource mobilization…
FG: And these are all young women?
ZMW: 75% of our members are under 35 years of age. We have adolescent girls even, so we are quite intergenerational. We are learning from those who have been engaged for so long, and those who are just starting. That’s the uniqueness of our platform.
FG: And did you choose an area of focus in particular, like GBV?
ZMW: No, we have a different theme every year, and we align with the theme of the [United Nations] Commission on the Status of Women [CSW] every year. So, this year , the theme is climate change. We believe this way [by connecting to global debates], we will make our advocacy stronger, and we can also hold our governments accountable [for their commitments at the UN].
FG: Who are the targets of your advocacy? Is it national leaders?
ZMW: The local governments, national governments, the Members of parliament, are specific actors we look at. But at the same time, we also look at [what we can do with] the grassroots communities, because we also have to realize that most of the countries in these regions are led by dictators … the heads of state have been in power for ages, there is war…So, we keep testing models. One of the things we see that works, something we learned in Wfac, is empowering and providing information to the grassroots. While we are targeting the decision-makers that are taking forever to change their behavior, if the masses are really informed, they can push for that change. So, we are doing that kind of bottom-up, and top-down [pressure] … using all approaches.
FG: What do you feel have been your successes so far, even if very small? What are the things you feel you’ve achieved that make you excited and make you want to keep doing this?
ZMW: We are nascent, but before, there had never been any sub-regional feminist group pressure. We have expertise, and we find we are being listened to. This week, for example, we were able to make contributions to the Zero Draft [the first version of a text to be negotiated at the UN] on climate change for the CSW, and we sent it to the permanent representatives [the UN ambassadors] of the 11 countries.
FG: What are some of the demands you made on climate?
ZMW: We are aiming high: we are lobbying to have a sub-regional climate policy. Geographically, these countries are situated at the equator, and they are rich in natural resources, so we want to see how we can collectively come up with a sub-regional plan….
FG: That makes so much sense. And are there issues that are especially “feminist,” really key to women in the region with respect to climate, that you want to see in that plan?
ZMW: Women and climate are linked closely. Forest products are important, a lot of timber comes from the sub-region … and the women in the region are mostly petty traders [street vendors] or farmers. They farm for subsistence, but they don’t own their land. There is a lot of land grabbing linked to large-scale farming, and to deforestation by the State, by multinationals, and by Chinese companies. The locals who are responsible for allocating land for timber are men. They are busy exploiting the weakness of the communities. The women don’t have the tools to produce food on a large scale, so they get displaced. They also don’t have the means to protect their land against flooding. In the North, we have bush fires, which also badly affect women farmers.
FG: These issues are huge, aren’t they? Do you feel your small platform can affect this agenda?
ZMW: Yes, it’s huge … and it can be frustrating. One advantage we have is that we are connected to the petty traders. Some of them are members of the GenEgalité platform. When they come in these [advocacy] spaces, they automatically feel defeated, because education-wise, they feel: “I am lower than everyone,” and they are intimidated, they might not be fluent in French or English, to really speak properly. But in our space, we make it so, “no matter your level of education, you know what, you are unique! You have wisdom, knowledge, a unique experience of your own.” That is what we need. Diversity is our strength! Because those with the academic background can always translate what you say in a language that fits the policy debate. And that alone has built confidence.
And interestingly these groups of people we think are of lower economic status are very, very powerful, because they can organize. If you need 10,000 people, they know how to organize. This is the power that they have! You get it? You with your academic background, you can say, “Can we have a meeting?” and nobody will show up! But they speak to their peers, and they come. So that is a power. And how they use that power to bring change, that is the question. How do you use that power during elections? Not to receive a t-shirt, flyers, and be a hand clapper, but to bring a mayor or a parliamentarian to account.
Isn’t Zo fabulous and a total dynamo?! She is doing all of this herself with a team of four, and a budget of $55,000 for now. Remember my call about the urgent need to FUND feminist movements?
You can hear more from Zo soon on our website fmus.org. She and I will continue talking about advocacy by adolescent girls, menstrual management, the role of religious fundamentalist groups in Cameroon, funding for the feminist movement, and much more.
Follow Zo, Wfac and GenEgalité on Twitter
If you want to contribute to Wfac’s work, get in touch with their US-based funders:
And before I leave you, let me point you to the Ukraine 2022 Emergency Appeal of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the independent, global humanitarian agency that operates in war zones. It currently has over 600 staff on the ground in Ukraine to provide assistance to those affected by the war unleashed by Vladimir Putin's illegal and unjustified invasion.
In feminist solidarity and peace,