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‘Breast flattening,’ also known as ‘breast ironing’ or ‘breast massage,’ is a practice whereby a young girl’s developing breasts are massaged, pounded, pressed, or patted with an object, usually heated in a wooden fire, to make them stop developing, grow more slowly or disappear completely.

Rebecca Tapscott* spent last August in the area of Bafut, in the Northwest, Anglophone region of Cameroon, where a 2006 study by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) found an 18% prevalence rate of breast flattening. The practice has been known as breast ‘ironing,’ however, Rebecca opts to use the term ‘flattening’ to decrease stigma and encourage open conversation about a practice that remains largely hidden.** Rebecca wanted to understand the role of breast flattening in the broader context of adolescence in Cameroon, including past and present motivations for breast flattening; cultural foundations; relation to other forms of gender-based violence such as female genital mutilation or cutting (FGM/C); how and where it is practiced; the psychological and the physical implications of the practice on individual girls.

Rebecca published her findings via the Feinstein International Center in May 2012, in a paper titled: Understanding Breast “Ironing”: A Study of the Methods, Motivations, and Outcomes of Breast Flattening Practices in Cameroon.

She visited our office late last year to share the results of her work with staff at the Plan USA office, explaining that there is currently very little research or documentation of breast flattening. The GIZ study is the only quantitative study on the practice, and there do not seem to be any medical studies on breast flattening. It’s a practice that is believed to affect 1 out of 4 girls in Cameroon, more commonly in some regions than in others. Of note is that research on breast flattening has thus far only been conducted in Cameroon, thus creating the impression that the practice is uniquely Cameroonian, when in reality, it may be a regional phenomenon.

Organizations working to end breast flattening do so with the aim of protecting girls. However, the question of protection is an interesting one depending on who you talk with. Rebecca found that those who practice breast flattening also believe they are protecting girls. “Many mothers believe that unattended, a girl’s breasts will attract advances of men who believe physically developed girls are ‘ripe’ for sex. Breast flattening is seen as a way to keep girls safe from men so that they are able to stay in school and avoid pregnancy.”

According to Rebecca, breast flattening is practiced out of a desire to delay a girl’s physical development and reduce the risk of promiscuous behavior. Proponents of the practice consider that “men will pursue ‘developed’ girls and that girl children are not able to cope with or deter men’s attention. They see that promiscuity can result in early pregnancy, which limits educational, career, and marriage opportunities, shames the family, increases costs to family (newborn, loss of bride price, health complications from early childbirth or unsafe abortion).” In addition, there is the belief that girls are not sufficiently intellectually developed to learn about puberty, and therefore should not yet develop breasts. Another reason given for the practice is the belief that girls who develop before their classmates will be the target of teasing and become social outcasts. There is also, for some, the belief that large breasts are unattractive or not fashionable.

Rebecca cites a poor understanding of human biology as one reason that the practice persists. Some of the beliefs around it include: “Belief that sensitivity and pain during breast development indicates that the growth is too early and must be artificially delayed until the girl is older. Belief that when a girl develops breasts she will stop growing taller. Belief that puberty can be delayed by delaying breast development. Belief that for breasts to grow properly, the first growth should always be repressed (like baby teeth). Belief that if breasts begin growing at a young age, they will grow too large or be misshapen, resulting in a displeasing or disproportionate female form. Belief that breasts and other outward signs of sexuality develop in accordance with a girl’s interest in sex, and therefore a developed girl is soliciting sexual advances or is a ‘bad’ girl. Belief that when a girl develops breasts, she believes she has matured and subsequently, she becomes less obedient. Belief that it will improve breast feeding at a later age.”

“…For mothers there is the perception that we should delay the development of girls as much as possible, believing that physical development shows maturity. Men look at girls and talk amongst themselves and say, “she’s ripe for sex.” They are not looking for marriage prospects…Men are aggressive. In pidgin, they say “she got get done big,” meaning, she’s matured and ready for sex. I can go after her now. Women, on the other hand, know that their daughters are just kids.” ~ journalist that Rebecca interviewed.

Rebecca also heard explanations such as “A girl will stop growing taller because the weight of her breasts will hold her down. One can delay puberty by delaying breast growth. If the breasts hurt during puberty, they are developing too early.” There are also many beliefs related to a girl’s development and her sexual reputation. Some of these beliefs include that a girl with large breasts is a ‘bad girl’. This stems from the belief that breasts start to develop when a man touches them or if a girl is thinking about sex, going to night clubs or watching pornography. Rebecca found that many of these beliefs were held across all segments of society, from the very well educated to those with no formal education.

“The body responds to psychological ideas. If a girl looks for a “friend,” her breasts will grow faster. If she is interested in boys or watches pornography, her body will develop faster.” ~ Interviewee at the Ministry of Social Affairs

“If a girl is interested in sex and thinks about it a lot, she will develop faster. I saw two girls of 12 years, one of whom was very developed physically and the other was not. The one who was developed could speak very frankly about sex, showing that she was knowledgeable from some experience, while the other girl was very naive and shy.” ~ Teacher

Because of potential stigma or harm to girls who talked about undergoing breast flattening, Rebecca only interviewed a few teenaged girls directly during this phase of her research. Instead, she mainly interviewed older women, as well as a few boys and men. She found that most women who had experienced breast flattening didn’t seem to remember the experience as extremely traumatic; however, she commented, “most are remembering from back in the day. Most at first said didn’t really hurt but then after a while into the interview, they’d remember, well, yes it hurt.” Rebecca was surprised at the number of people who said that heated leaves were used, because the media normally reports that a grinding stone or pestle is used for breast flattening.

“When I was 11 years old, my grandmother did a form of breast flattening to me. This was in 1984. I was walking around with her shoulders hunched forward to hide my developing chest, so my grandmother called me to the kitchen. She warmed some fresh leaves on the fire and said something in the dialect, like a pleading to the ancestors or spirits. Then she applied the leaves to my chest, and used them to rub and pat my breasts flat. She would also rub and pat my back, so as to make the chest flat and even on the front and the back. It hurts because the chest is so sensitive then—but they are not pressing too hard.” ~ 38 year old woman from the community

“To do the practice, I warmed the pestle in the fire, and used it in a circular motion to press the breasts flat. I did it once per day for over a week—maybe 8 or 9 days. I massaged them well, and they went back for seven years.” ~ 53-year-old woman attending a maternal health clinic in Bafut, attending with a different daughter whose breasts she did not flatten

“Until about a year ago, I believed that when a girl is interested in sex, watches porn, or lets boys touch their breasts, her breasts will grow larger. I think my mother must believe this. My ideas changed when I saw my own friends—I knew they were virgins, but they had large breasts. Also when my own breasts got bigger, and it was not because a man was touching them.” ~ Journalist in Bamenda

There is currently no consensus on whether the practice is effective at reducing the size of a girl’s breasts or if it has long-term effects on breast size. “People told me completely different things gave the same result, or people cited the very same practices as yielding different results,” said Rebecca.

Rebecca’s findings indicate that the practice of breast flattening is not a longstanding ‘traditional’ practice. Many people reported that it became more popular with urbanization. “People [who immigrated to cities] didn’t know their neighbors and they were worried about the safety of their daughters. It seems that an old practice that was used for ‘shaping’ was repurposed and adapted. Breast flattening is a very intimate and personal thing between mother and daughter. It doesn’t happen to all daughters. It’s very difficult to track, and there is no association with ethnic groups, education, socioeconomic levels, religion, etc.,” she explained.

“Most men don’t know about it. One boy said he thought it was good to protect girls.” When she talked holistically with men about what they look for in a woman, Rebecca said, “an interest in chastity and virginity came out very clearly. In Cameroon the average age for girls to lose virginity is 13-17, and it’s the same for boys. According to studies, for most, the first sexual experience is unwilling.”

Most doctors that Rebecca talked to had never heard of the practice. One doctor in Yaoundé said he had seen first and second degree burns as a result. Some cite that edemia may be a result. Development organizations like GIZ say it can cause cysts, cancer, and other difficulties but also cited that only 8% of women report suffering negative side effects, while 18% report that their breasts “fell” or sagged at an early age.

Many women who Rebecca interviewed considered the practice a very low concern compared to other problems that impact on their development, such as illiteracy, sexual exploitation, poverty and unemployment. “The women that I talked to,” said Rebecca, “often asked me, ‘Why are you asking me about this? It’s such a small thing compared to other things we have to face.’”

Given that there is not much research or consensus around breast flattening in Cameroon and the broader region, Rebecca’s work may be of use to local and international organizations that are working to promote women’s and children’s rights. Rebecca emphasizes that most people who engage in what are commonly referred to as ‘harmful traditional practices’ including female genital cutting (FGC) and breast flattening, actually do so with their child’s best interest in mind, as a means of protecting and promoting the child within the community and following social norms. Therefore, frightening or berating people may not be the best approach to discourage the practice of breast flattening. Community input will be needed to identify the root causes of the practice for it to become obsolete. Better sex education and a reduction in stigma around talking about sexual reproductive health may also help. Men will need to be part of the solution, and so will mothers who currently feel the need to take protection of their daughters into their own hands. Like many similar practices, it’s not likely that breast flattening will end until other systems and environments that set the stage for it also change.

*Rebecca worked with Plan Cameroon for several weeks on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) Project last June and July. She traveled to Bafut following her internship to conduct independent research.

**This distinction is similar to the difference between the terms female genital ‘mutilation’ and female genital ‘cutting.’

Read the full report.

Contact Rebecca for more information: rebecca.tapscott [at] gmail.com

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This is a guest post by Bertil van Vugt, who works as the content director at Africa Interactive.  Bertil and I met for the first time about a year ago at a tweet up in Amsterdam, though I had known about Africa Interactive’s fantastic work with African media professionals for much longer. I was thrilled to hear from Bertil last week that they’ve been working with Plan in West Africa, and have made 4 videos about the Girls Making Media project that I had written about earlier this month. 

Girls Making Media in Ghana

Men dominate the African media sector. Looking at our own database of over 2000 media-professionals in 50 African countries we see predominantly males. Fortunately we are also working with many talented women throughout the continent. When we were asked to produce videos and case studies about Plan’s Girls Making Media Project we got really exited about the initiative that is preparing young girls for a career in the media sector.

I work for Africa Interactive, a social venture delivering media and communication services with offices in Amsterdam, Nairobi and Accra. As I mentioned earlier we are working with local reporters, camera-crews and photographers throughout Africa to document activities of NGOs, multinationals and governments. While these organizations previously worked with Western crews who travelled to Africa, we work with African media-professionals and guarantee the quality of the productions.

Local film-crews

There are many advantages of working with local crews. They know their way around; they speak the languages and understand the culture since it is theirs. These people can be fixer, translator and journalist at the same time. And not unimportant: the costs are lower compared to flying people in. For this Plan assignment we worked with experienced crews (male AND female) in Lomé (Togo), Bomi (Liberia), Makeni (Sierra Leone) and Sogakope (Ghana). Our, by the way female, employees in Accra and Nairobi did the video editing and we finalized the videos in our Amsterdam office.

GMM

The Girls Making Media project’s goal is to contribute to the elimination of gender discrimination and benefits at least 140 adolescent girls and 30 adult journalists in the most marginalized areas in each country. With this project, girls and adult journalists are trained on various topics aiming at increasing their capacity to produce quality information concerning girls’ rights. It is also empowering girls to advocate on issues concerning their well-being.

In the four videos we focus on the three-year program (which started one year ago) and show the development, achievements and challenges so far. We hear about the effect the project has on the girls and their communities. Also, the girls explain how they see themselves after learning media skills and talking about gender related issues on the radio and TV.

Liberia

Ghana

Sierra Leone

Togo

Girls interact with journalists

Together with the Plan West Africa office in Ouagadougou we developed the idea that the video-shoot should also be an opportunity for the girls to interact with our crews and learn from them. During the filming days there was room for questions and sharing of experiences. We received positive feedback from the crews and the Plan offices about the cooperation with the girls. I would like to use this space to thank the camera-crews who did a great job to create the videos:  Comfort + Yudawhere (Liberia), Wotay + Idriss (Sierra Leone), Paul + Gary (Ghana) and Rodrique + Anselme (Togo).

Let me conclude by saying that I hope to welcome the girls to our network after they have finalized the GMM project!

If you are looking for any content on your activities in Africa, just contact me via e-mail: bertil [at] africanews.com or Twitter: @brutuz.

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This is a guest post by Joe Pavey who, along with Rebecca Tapscott, interned with us in Cameroon on the Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media (YETAM) project during July and August. Reading Joe’s post I couldn’t help but think about how positive the contributions of youth can be, and about the attitudes that adults and elected officials need to have in order to encourage youth to engage in actions to make their communities better, and how important it is for communities to show young people that they are valued for the contributions that they make and respected for the role that they play.  

The original post appears on Joe’s blog Yakcast 2.0, titled Youth Led Action in Bamessing.

Following the conclusion of the refresher course at GBHS Bamessing, the YETAM youth began work on their first advocacy campaign of the summer. After much discussion the youth decided that the first topic they would take on would be the high prevalence of malaria in their community.

Malaria is one of the biggest killers of children under the age of six in Africa, but lack of health education means many people here still are not aware of how the disease is contracted, and how it can be avoided. Additionally, the direct relationship between cleanliness and the spread of this disease runs counter to many of the choices the environment here encourages. The long periods that often come between availability of running water, forces villagers to store water in containers, and collect it from the frequent rains. This water is frequently left sitting in open containers. Mosquitos will lay their eggs in this water, leading to an increase in the insect population. More mosquitos, means more carriers for the disease, which in turn leads to more people contracting the illness. Additionally, mosquitos tend to thrive in places with tall grass. Lack of funds to clean communal areas often means that shrubbery in public places such as the market square, aren’t cleared regularly. Ignorance of this cycle is what the youth intended to combat. Not an easy thing since explaining these correlations requires the understanding of multiple stages of cause and effect.

In order to get the attention of the village, the youth decided to hold a series of clean-up and sensitization campaigns, intended to illustrate the sort of changes they felt the village needed to make. The first stage was a clean-up at three of the local health centers. The youth divided themselves into three separate groups, and spent several hours clearing brush, dirt, and standing water, from outside these centers. They posted sensitization signs outlining the causes of malaria and what can be done to minimize it. Despite the fact that many of the youth had left town for holiday, there was excellent youth turnout at all three health centers. After the morning of the clean-up these centers were models of how the village should maintain their environment.

Next a major cleanup campaign was performed at the BamessingTown Square, the day before Market Day. Market day here is a huge event, so the time and location of this clean-up had been chosen for maximum exposure. Twenty-four youth and two facilitators (myself included) spent nearly seven hours cleaning brush, shoveling dirt, and picking up trash to make the campaign a success. The youth took turns documenting this work with both video and still cameras. When the clean-up was completed they hung signs in main areas of the market urging the community not to dump dirt and trash in the market square. Another sign was created instructing people to a landfill pit where waste could be properly disposed.

The next morning, when Market Day was in full swing, the youth headed down in their bright yellow YETAM t-shirts to explain to market sellers and patrons what they had done and why they had done it. Their message was well received. Community members were thankful for the hard work the youth had performed, and therefore open to hearing their advice. At the end of the day there was a marked increase in people disposing of their trash appropriately.

Finally, the youth invited members of the village community and high-ranking officials to a workshop to discuss the causes of malaria and what could be done about it. My colleague Rebecca had arranged for a Peace Corps volunteer working on health education to come to the event to give a brief presentation. Unfortunately, only one community member apart from YETAM youth and facilitators attended the workshop. Thankfully this attendee was a member of the Sanitary Committee, so all was not lost. She arrived to the workshop quite late (just as we were finishing), so a short recap was given for her benefit.

The woman from the Sanitary Committee requested that the youth express their concerns to the village council, which they did two days later. The council was happy to receive the youth’s concerns and invited them to sing the national anthem at a special ceremony celebrating the arrival of the District Officer later in the week.

This ceremony turned out to be the closest thing to a festival I experienced during my time in Bamessing. Well over 1000 villagers attended the event. There was dancing and singing. There were masked characters called Ndobo, who shook fistfuls of brush at passers-by. (Check out this link for a great post on Ndobo by Plan USA’s Linda Raftree.) There were Muslim men in full regalia riding bucking, wild horses. There were flute players, and drummers, and dignitaries. Everyone arrived dressed in their finest traditional outfits. The Fon of Bamessing (the village ruler), a proud mountain of a man, oversaw the ceremony from the perch of his throne. If his hulking stature weren’t enough to separate him from the massive crowd outside the palace, he was seated on top of an authentic (and I’m sure locally made) animal skin rug to emphasize his authority.

YETAM was represented at the event in two ways: First, several of the youth led the singing of the national anthem. Second, the President of YETAM Bamessing, Martin, gave a short speech informing the District Officer about the activities of YETAM. His was the only speech not given by a high-ranking dignitary. Martin presented the District Officer with a copy of a Small-Grant Project Proposal To Increase School Attendance in the Bamessing Community which the youth had written for an upcoming advocacy project.

It cannot be over-emphasized how big an event this was for the community, and how impressive it was that the Village Council chose to make the YETAM youth such an integral part of the proceedings. Whether the youth’s efforts will lead to lasting behavioral change in the community is unknown, but it was a fascinating thing to see this project escalate over the course of the month. I couldn’t have had an experience like this without investing the length of time I did here this summer. And for me at least, that made the experience worthwhile.

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This is a guest post by Rebecca Tapscott who, along with Joe Paveyis interning with us in Cameroon for the next couple months. Rebecca wrote a first post about the what and the why of setting up an Ushahidi system in Cameroon to track violence against children and Joe goes more into depth about the technical side of setting the actual system up in his post Digitizing violence reporting. Sounds complicated… because it is!.

Here Rebecca writes about how she and Joe are better understanding mobile phone use and community context by living in the community. She also goes into how the team is training youth on how the system works and getting youth’s input into the design and use of this type of system in their community

Learning what information to include when sending SMS reports on child abuse.

One component of our ICT4D internship with Plan is working “in the field” with the community to help implement the Ushahidi reporting system for violence against children (“VAC”).  To this end, Joe and I are living in Bamessing community, a village in the North West Region of Cameroon, also one of the three program units (“PUs”) hosting the YETAM program.

Bamessing has no running water, limited network coverage, and sporadic electricity.  The region is also known for high rates of child/forced marriage, domestic violence and school dropouts.  If a VAC Ushahidi system can work here, it can work anywhere.

Piloting the site in Bamessing has several benefits as well.  First, we are working with a group of motivated youth who have received extensive training on the four categories of  child abuse and violence against children (physical, psychological / emotional, sexual, and neglect or negligent treatment), as well as their legal rights under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international and national protocol.

Second, the Bamessing community is saturated with cell phones, and most of the youth in the YETAM group have their own personal cell phones.  Joe and I had a discussion with Odelia, our “land lady” and the 30-year-old widow of the late pastor, who told us that she first noticed cell phones in Bamessing in 2010 (though some say they’ve been around since 2004).  Since then, she has owned five cell phones, although she never uses one to text, and makes only one or two calls a week.  Instead, cell phones seem to serve as a sort of portable doorbell.  Neighbors, friends, and acquaintances “beep” each other (give a missed call, which does not cost any credit) to relay a predetermined message.  Credit is expensive relative to other daily costs and, as previously mentioned, the network here is tenuous.  Texting requires literacy, dexterity, and decent vision, which are limiting factors for many of the adults in the community.

Finally, Cameroon seems to have the advantage of a functioning (albeit imperfect) offline system for reporting and responding to VAC.  I spoke with a delegate from the Ministry of Social Affairs (“MINAS”), who explained some of the system’s weaknesses to me, namely that the ministry is highly underfunded and understaffed.  He also lamented that reporting is lacking, due to inadequate knowledge of civil law (instead, most people are familiar with customary law, which often reinforces certain rights violations), and inability to report violations.  While knowledge of civil law must come from human led sensitization and education projects, the Ushahidi platform can enhance reporting ability in Cameroon.  Through our discussions with Plan staff in Yaoundé, we came to the optimistic conclusion that the government might increase investment in staff, resources, and educative programs in direct response to the number and severity of reports that come through the Ushahidi system.

Given these caveated benefits, our current challenge is to introduce the concept of reporting through Ushahidi to the YETAM youth group, teach the youth how to report incidents, integrate their feedback into the system, get the online system up and running, pilot it, and present it to MINAS.

Our first opportunity to present Ushahidi to the youth was during the YETAM refresher training, held June 22 – June 27, 2011 at a local high school in Bamessing.  Joe and I worked with Georges (Plan Cameroon’s ICT coordinator for the area) and Judith (the YETAM coordinator in Cameroon) to design a module to introduce Ushahidi and our particularized reporting system.  First, Georges and Joe explained Ushahidi and answered questions on a theoretical level.  We then described our intention to use Ushahidi for reporting VAC, what information must be included in reports of VAC, and what information will be displayed on the Ushahidi site.

We created an acronym (ChANGE) to help the youth remember what information to include in text message reports. (C: Community; h: False letter– we said “help” so people can remember, but really nothing should be reported there, A: Age, N: Name of victim, and your own if you are comfortable reporting it, G: Gender, E: Event.)  Then we gave a practice scenario and asked five participants in the class to show how they would report the message. We reviewed each message for number of characters, noting that a single text message is limited to 140 characters, and also checked to make sure that all the necessary components were included.  All five messages were similar, reading something like:

My name is Judith. I beg of you for my friend Mary who is 14 years old and whose father is taking her from school to give to a 60 year old man for marriage in Bamessing community.

Most of the messages ran long, but did include the five required components.  One area of confusion was what level of geographic specificity to include.  We explained that while the report must be as specific as possible to facilitate a response, the Ushahidi site will present a more general geographic location so as to preserve anonymity for victims and reporters.

We asked the youth for feedback on the system, which resulted in more questions clarifying what is appropriate to report, and the level of confidentiality of reporting.  One concern was that often the phone network is down, making it impossible to send text messages.  We clarified that all the old methods of reporting still exist, and that community animators and Plan staff can be sought out to report either by text message or the other ways.  By the end of the training, the youth agreed that this would be a useful system, and some commented that they particularly appreciate the unique level of anonymity associated with SMS reporting.

This month, Joe and Georges will finalize the Ushahidi system, Joe will create brief manuals for system users, and Joe and I will provide additional training on using the system.  We hope to have the youth send sample text messages to the site in the next month to test the system, to train the youth, and to provide sample data to present the site to potential government partners. Our colleague Nathalia (the Child Protection Advisor in Plan Cameroon) also suggested that we create a ‘child and youth friendly’ guide to how Ushahidi works that can be used for training, so we’ll get going on that also.

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This is a guest post by Joe Pavey who, along with Rebecca Tapscott, is interning with us in Cameroon for the next couple months. Rebecca wrote a first post about the what and the why of setting up an Ushahidi system in Cameroon to track violence against children. Here Joe goes more into depth about the technical side of setting the actual system up.

Our first major discussion about the VAC Cameroon site was in regards to how reports should pass through the system. For obvious reasons the information contained within these reports is extremely sensitive, so each step of the workflow process needs to be determined with the best interests of the children involved in mind.

The existing offline system for reporting violence against children was agreed upon through an exhaustive deliberation process with government, community, and local council members. In short, a lot of hard work has gone into making the existing offline system something that all parties agree on and it would not only be negligent, but counterproductive not to use this as a blueprint. For this reason the online system we are working on should respect, support and ultimately serve to expedite the current process, not replace it.

Under this current system Plan serves in the capacity of witness in cases of child abuse. Plan Cameroon has partnered with several governmental agencies to investigate and respond to reports they receive. Which agency this is depends upon the circumstances of the abuse.  Age, gender, and location are all factors in determining which agency will be responsible. For example, abuses taking place in the home are currently handled by the Ministry of Social Affairs, but cases involving female children are handled by the Ministry of Child and Women’s Empowerment.

The current policy also requires that all reports of violence against children received by Plan staff be forwarded to the sector office within 48 hours.

Existing community-level reporting flow

Following this, the report has 24 hours to reach the country office in Yaounde. This one of the processes we are hoping to expedite with the implementation of the digitized system.

Existing flow of next-level reporting - at Program Unit and Plan Country Office

If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. As outsiders who are new not only to the culture, but also to the peculiarities of local bureaucracy, much of Rebecca’s and my first session was taken up with trying to understand the rules and regulations already in place. Thankfully we have Cameroonian colleagues in the local office to help us navigate and understand all of this.

The Ushahidi System

Ushahidi allows three methods for submitting reports: (1) Text Message, via Frontline SMS or another text messaging tool, (2) Email, and (3) Submitting a report directly through the site. These actions can be taken by individuals in the community or by Plan Staff if they are alerted of a particular incident. A fourth means of submitting reports to Ushahidi, via voice messaging, was previously available through a plug-in called Cloudvox. Unfortunately the company that created the Cloudvox plug-in was recently acquired and has suspended this product for the immediate future, and we haven’t identified an alternative voice messaging system. This is unfortunate as we were hoping to be able to offer voice messaging as a reporting method for non-literate youth — although bandwidth limitations may have rendered this impossible anyway.

Information workflow for Plan Cameroon VAC Crowdmap site (updated; this is version 2.)

Based on the information that needs to be tracked and reported on, our current plan is to separate reports into four categories, each with several subcategories as follows:

  1. Form of Violence
  • Physical
  • Sexual
  • Emotional/Psychological
  • Negligence
  1. Gender of Victim
  • Male
  • Female
  1. Age of Victim
  • 0-5
  • 6-12
  • 13-18
  1. Location of Incident
  • Home
  • Work
  • School
  • Community

Current Crowd Map set up with 4 main categories.

Creating these reporting categories (and each of their subsequent subcategories) will allow this information to be tracked separately, or to be looked at in terms of how categories overlap with each other. Since the Ushahidi platform allows users to choose more than one category or sub-category when submitting an incident report, no data need be lost in the effort to isolate and contextualize information.

For example, by tracking Gender and Location of Incident separately we will be able to more easily visualize how many incidents of abuse are taking place at schools in a certain community, how many of the victims are girls versus boys, and how each of those categories relates to reports from other regions. This will be especially important information to the government who has different agencies in place for tracking violence against children and youth depending on the circumstances. It will also be useful for Plan staff who can then tailor programs and awareness campaigns in a specific community towards the issues that are most prevalent there.

Plan Cameroon staff, partners and youth have create a detailed online map of each council area in which this project will take place, however, mapping of reports will be restricted to a less precise level described to us as the ‘community level’. It’s hard for Rebecca and me to conceptualize just how specific of an indicator this is, though once we are living in the community – a transition taking place this week – it should become easier to measure. The reason for mapping the location of incidents at the community level is privacy. If reports were mapped too precisely they could compromise the identity and safety of a child — a result that would be entirely unacceptable.

On the Ushahidi ‘back end’, each report of an incident will also contain a Description section that will allow information outside categorical parameters to be included in reports. This could be the body of a text message, a summary of a voicemail, or any other details that are deemed to fall outside the determined privacy boundaries (eg., this will allow us to keep identifying information and other details in the system, yet keep it from going public).

Over the course of our week in Yaounde, we engaged in many discussions regarding how we could make the online information workflow match that of the offline system. The conclusion seemed to be that involving community members and Plan staff in initial approval of reports might be possible, but that expecting all six of the varying government agencies that currently respond to such reports to use this digital system would be problematic. At this point we are hoping that the official agreement can be reworked slightly so that only MINAS, the Ministry of Social Affairs would need to be involved in the system.

By week’s end we had drafted an initial proposal for what the workflow for the system could be. It is by no means final and will likely go through numerous revisions over the course of our work here, but it will provide us a good base to build from in the future.

Unfortunately our progress on setting up the site itself has been handicapped by technical issues with the Crowdmap website that cause the site to crash when trying to create subcategories. We have engaged with members of the Ushahidi staff and they are currently working to fix the bug, but we don’t have a timeline as to when they will have the issue resolved.

We have now left Yaounde for Bamessing where we will be initiating our field work on the YETAM project, working with youth on creating short films, performing more community mapping, and we hope that the mobile Internet connection will allow us to continue to work remotely on the Crowdmap site.

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Guest post by Rebecca Tapscott who, along with Joe Pavey, is interning with us in Cameroon.

Joe Pavey and I are here in Yaoundé working as ICT4D interns for Plan Cameroon to help develop an Ushahidi/Frontline SMS system to report violence against children (VAC) and gender-based discrimination.  The project is conceptually the same as the Ushahidi site set up for Plan-Benin that another colleague of ours, Paul Goodman, worked on last month, although we have not completed the planning stages or started to implement.  At the outset, it is apparent that there are certain logistical and systematic differences between the projects, particularly in terms of the role of government partners.

Our team consists of Joe and me, Judith Nkie (the National Coordinator of the YETAM project), Nathalia Ngende (the Child Rights Advisor), Georges Niatchak (South Sector ICT Coordinator) and Charles Chiappi (ICT Manager).  We met for a few hours this past week to clarify some details of the project. (Note: This discussion built on training conducted in late May with staff and partners working on the YETAM project. In that training, the goals of an Ushahidi component to the project were generally agreed on among all. In addition, the information flow was discussed, a role play was done to help clarify roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, challenges and bottlenecks to work through were identified along with the need for alternative reporting channels for those without SMS access or those are not literate, need to establish a baseline and indicators for success was discussed, protection risks were raised, and sustainability and ways to promote the system and the idea of violence reporting were considered.) 

This post discusses the purpose of the project and how it might be useful in the short and long-term.  Joe will follow up in a second post with some information about the logistics of setting up the Ushahidi site, and some remaining questions and next steps*.

Why YETAM, why Bamenda?

YETAM (Youth Empowerment through Technology, Arts and Media) is a Plan project established in 2008 that has been implemented with youth between 12 and 21 in eight African countries (Benin, Cameroon, Ghana, Kenya, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, and Senegal).  Plan Cameroon has three YETAM sites, one in the Northwest region (Bamenda), one in the North region (Garoua), and one in the Center region (Yaoundé).  The Plan team has chosen to pilot the VAC-Cameroon Ushahidi project with YETAM for two reasons.  First, VAC is of utmost relevance to youth, so it makes sense to place this new project within a youth-based project.  Second, YETAM participants have shown enthusiasm and passion for the YETAM project, and Plan believes that this energy and dedication can make the Ushahidi reporting system a success as well.

In preparation for this pilot project, the YETAM participants have mapped the towns of Ndop (in the Bamenda PU), Okola (in the Yaoundé PU), and Pitoa (in the Garoua PU), which can be viewed on OpenStreetMap.com.  The Ushahidi component will be new to the project but the team has been thinking about using new tool since last year and learning from the project in Benin.

How can Ushahidi combat VAC and gender-based discrimination?

The VAC-Cameroon Ushahidi site will be used for reporting violence against children and gender-based discrimination.  The idea is to establish a partnership with government ministries, in particular the Ministry of Social Affairs (MINAS) to respond to reports with the necessary legal and social support.  The Ushahidi system provides certain tools that will help make reports actionable for both a government response to individual reports, and a youth-led response to VAC and gender-based discrimination at the community level.

In particular, the ability to map the location of the report and categorize each report by the victim’s age, gender, and the location of the incident (home, work, school, or community) will allow YETAM participants and Plan Cameroon staff to use the information to identify what types of violence are occurring in which communities.  This information can help Plan staff target awareness trainings to serve the needs of specific communities.  YETAM participants can use the information to develop social advocacy campaigns, which are already a part of the YETAM project.

Plan Cameroon also has a broader psychosocial program that works to build resilience and help victimized children reintegrate into their communities.  The psychosocial program can use information from the VAC-Cameroon Ushahidi site to better understand where different kinds of violence are prevalent and hold corresponding trainings for social workers and community-based organizations.

Additionally, MINAS recently drafted a child protection code that has yet to be finalized or ratified.  There is resistance to finalizing the code because Cameroon already has a Family and People’s Code, and some people believe that since children are a part of the family, a separate code would be redundant.  However, children face unique challenges and threats that are not addressed in the Family and People’s code.  We hope that the data gathered by the VAC-Cameroon Ushahidi site can demonstrate some of these unique problems and serve as special and innovative tool to facilitate reporting of child abuse and gender-based discrimination.

Challenges:

No initiative would be complete without its challenges, and there are some hurdles that still need to be overcome, including

  • Empowering government partners to ensure that perpetrators of VAC are pursued, that justice is served, and that children are protected.
  • Building government capacity to ensure a smooth handover of site management and long-term sustainability for the project.
  • Ensuring that there is a point person in the government (MENAS) who will approve and verify reports in a timely manner.
  • Securing long-term funding for the project.
  • Involving police so that perpetrators will not be released and with the hopes of reducing the child abuse cases.

Note: Joe and I are prioritizing the VAC-Cameroon Ushahidi project for our work over the next ten weeks.  However, we are quickly realizing that the Plan Cameroon team has a strong work ethic, passion, and deep capability.  It is already apparent that establishing this Ushahidi site, training YETAM participants and communities to use it, establishing a strong government partnership for the project, and launching the site will take more than our allotted time.  We will do our best during our time here to support the planning, development, and implementation of the project as it progresses.

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Ernest training youth in Okola.

 

In  Garoua, Cameroon last week at a Training of Trainers meeting for the Youth Empowerment through Arts and Media (YETAM) Project, Ernest Kunbega Gwanvoma from GIMAC (Geographic Information and Management Center) took us through the youth digital mapping process that he and Plan staff and other partners facilitated this past year.

Ernest’s presentation is posted below (with his permission), along with some comments from the rest of the group.

 

Why Digital Mapping?

In line with YETAM’s emphasis on use of new technology in youth and community development work, Plan introduced the use of GPS and digital mapping. Training the youths in the use of GPS and digital mapping permitted them to map out their council areas and create an information system, including the road network and other socio-economic infrastructure of their area. This exercise exposed the youths to the realities of their environment, for it took them to all the nooks and corners of their area. This way they could easily identify the problems of their communities and share with their peers all over the world. And what better way than to indicate all this than on a map? Eventually the digital maps produced will be used to track cases of violence, gender discrimination and community development planning issues. They will be used locally and shared on Open Street Map to a wider world community.

Mapping in Ndop Council Area

Objectives

The general objective of the exercise was to produce digital maps for 3 council areas; Ndop, Pitoa and Okola, where YETAM projects are being implemented. To accomplish this, participating youth were trained on the use of GPS for field data collection. They created way points of socio-economic infrastructures for their areas. A data base on all the socioeconomic infrastructures mentioned above was created. The youth also tracked the road network of their council and put it on the digital maps. This information was all uploaded into Open Street Map.

Methodology

We used the following working methodology:

 

  • Training of students /community youths in the use of GPS for field data collection, its potential uses and practical sessions
  • Elaboration of data codification sheets and production of waypoint forms/tracking sheets and data collection sheets for schools and health centers
  • Collection of field data
  • Analysis of data and production of digital maps
  • Uploading of digital map into Open Street Map

 

Data codification sheet, way point forms and data sheets

 

Training youth to use way point forms.

During the theoretical sessions, the youth worked in small groups to brainstorm the data that they wanted to collect about their communities. Community members and Plan staff with experience in data collection, advocacy, research and development programs gave input as well. A final set of data to collect was agreed upon, including schools and health centres in all 3 council areas.  Each group (from Ndop, Pitoa and Okola) also had its own particular aspects that it wanted to map out, based on local context.

To enable the youths collect field data in an organised manner field documents were created and made available to them, including:

  • General codification sheet
  • Waypoint form
  • School data information sheets
  • Nursery school information sheet
  • Primary school information sheet
  • Secondary school information sheet-General Education
  • Secondary school information sheet-Technical Education
  • High school information sheet
  • Health centre information sheets
  • Tracking sheet

 

GPS practice in Pitoa

Collection of field data

In each locality, the start off was at the District officer’s office where a cover letter or letter of introduction explaining the rationale for the field exercise was collected. This letter was presented in the communities as the need arose to avoid any form of embarrassment from the community.

The data collection exercise in was carried out by community youths, students, resource persons and the consultant’s team. In Ndop and Okola, the Partner Vision (PAVIS) and IRONDEL staff (respectively) and all resource persons were involved in the data collection. The student youth population was not available due to classes, so the out-of-school community youth who were involved in the training did the data collection. In Pitoa the staff of Solutions Technologiques Alternatives (STA) and all the resource persons were involved in the data collection. The community youths and the student population participated intensely in the exercise for they had just finished with their examinations and their principal gave them permission to participate in the field exercise during school period.

Formation of Groups

Youth filling out way point forms in Okola

To facilitate field data collection in each of the council areas, field groups were created, headed by a resource person or a staff of the consultant. The groups were allocated an area of work. One group was in-charge of tracking all the road networks and the rest of the groups collected waypoints and data on socio-economic infrastructures.

In places where the information sheet (data collecting forms) could not be filled instantly, the forms were dropped off to be filled by the competent authorities and to be collected later, this was the case especially with schools. Cars and motor bikes were hired to transport data collectors to the field in each locality.

At the end of each day, a review of the day was done; problems, lapses and wrongly collected information were pointed to the different groups for corrective measures to be taken.

Downloading /converting  GPS  Data

To be able to analyze the GPS data the waypoints and tracks were downloaded and saved in appropriate formats that could be visualized in JOSM. (Waypoints-GPX and text format, Tracklogs-GPX and DXF formats)

Attributing waypoint types

Students collected data to link with the way points, for example at this school in Pitoa

Based on the field data collected attribute tables were built for schools and hospitals etc. The data collected on schools and other aspects were triangulated for accuracy (when possible) with data previously collected by Plan or available from local government offices.

 

Production of digital maps

To produce the digital maps of the three council areas the JOSM offline editor was used. The waypoints and tracks were loaded into JOSM. The waypoints were digitized and appropriate attribute information assigned to them as tags. The tracks representing the road network were also digitized using JOSM.

Uploading and visualization of the digital maps

The produced maps were uploaded using JOSM to the Open Street Map site with online connection as soon as they were finished. The maps can be seen at the Open Street Map site.

Challenges and constraints

Bad roads made the mapping difficult in areas where vehicles and motorbikes couldn't pass after a certain point.

  • The student population was not fully involved in the actual field data collection in some communities because they had to be in class, so we worked only with the out-of-school youth population.
  • In Ndop and Okola, rain disrupted field activities and work had to slow down given the bad nature of the roads, which became very impracticable to vehicles and bikes, making the whole exercise difficult, strenous and time-consuming.
  • It was not always easy to arrange for transportation.
  • Most of the students and drivers did not know their full community areas well, so local community guides were recruited to take teams around.
  • In some of the areas the data sheets of schools could not be filled because the head teachers were not available.
  • In one particular area, a head teacher deliberately refused to fill the forms demanding bribe from the youths.
  • In some of the schools the head teachers had no information about the student enrolment and as such the youths had to go to each class and count the students themselves which was time-consuming.
  • Youths had to trek long distances in some of the inaccessible villages by vehicles because roads were very narrow.

Discussion

Despite the challenges faced during the field data collection the mapping exercise was quite successful. Having the digital maps is a real achievement. Having a solid data base attached to geographic location will be a powerful tool to support the youth’s local advocacy work. (Live version of the map is here. To see data, turn on the data layer as shown in the image below by clicking on the blue tab on the right side of the map.)

Open Street Map image of Ndop with data layer turned on. Data to the left belongs to the blue dot near the center of the map.

Pitoa Council Area with data layer. (Visit Open Street Map for interactive view).

Okola Council Area with data points. (See Open Street Map for interactive map).

The group at the workshop (PAVIS, IRONDEL and STA partners, Plan staff and Ernest himself) concluded that digital mapping was a good exercise. One participant commented that the heads of the school hadn’t been aware of the importance of collecting data about their own schools, and the mapping exercise motivated the youth and the head teachers to begin to collect and track data, to look at the status of their building structures and to count their students.

Others commented that the mapping exercise is a tool that really takes the youth around to their environment. Many of the youth only knew specific parts of their communities, but the digital mapping exercise brought them around to the entire expanse of their community. It gave them a reason and an opportunity to get to know the realities of their environment.

The group agreed that in the future, it would be advisable for hand-drawn mapping followed by digital mapping to take place as the very first step of the project, before other project activities (arts, media and advocacy efforts) happen, because the mapping provides the youth with a deeper awareness of their communities and the main issues therein. It also allows them to collect solid data as well as a visual tool that they can use to then carry out their advocacy activities with local councils. (Note: This year, hand drawn mapping was done as a first step, then the arts and media activities followed. Because it was a new activity requiring additional training and preparation for staff and partners, the digital mapping was done in as third step).

One question the group will explore is how to train and support the local councils (who have responsibility for decentralized community development in Cameroon) with IT equipment so that they can keep the maps updated and/or create new digital maps on their own.

These same maps will serve as a base for an additional phase of the project that will involve tracking and mapping cases of violence against children and gender based violence and working with local communities and local government social services to raise awareness about violence and to prevent and respond to cases of abuse. (Similar to the VAC Benin project).

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