Amabo Divine Ngwawas on a path towards a violent future before a mentor showed him a different way. Now he's reaching out to boys in Cameroon to stop gender-based violence before it starts.
“Just as I have a sister who I don’t want someone to batter on, I don’t want to batter on someone’s sister.”
When Amabo Divine Ngwa addresses a group of boys as an anti-violence workshop facilitator, he usually incorporates an example of how not to behave. He tells them a story about a directionless teenage boy who took out his frustrations with the world on the girls around him before he finally turned his life around.
The story is his own.
While he’s not proud of his history, Amabo believes that sharing it helps struggling boys relate to his message. And he hopes that when they see the man he has become—a 30 year old founder of a youth-led NGO, a human rights campaigner, and an outspoken supporter of women’s rights—they can imagine positive roles for themselves in their communities.
Like many in Cameroon, Amabo grew up in a large family. As the fifth child of seven, and the first boy, he lived under the shadow of his older sisters. Lost, he began to drift into a pattern of violence. It was a male mentor in secondary school who helped him imagine a different path for his life and sparked in him a lifelong commitment to combat gender-based violence. Today Amabo is working and studying in South Africa, while serving on the board of the organization he founded, ORFEDAV Cameroon, a network of young people working in youth development and mobilization. He hopes to reach as many troubled young men as possible before they become perpetrators.
What led you to abandon violence?
The violence started towards my siblings, and it extended to school and into my community. It began to change gradually when I participated in a UN-based program in our school where they would talk on issues of human rights. When I went to secondary school I learned more about human rights. Three years into secondary school I started participating in workshops empowering youths on issues of violence. Every workshop seemed like a message directed straight to me.
The real turning point was in one of those workshops when I met the man who would become my mentor, Mr. Etali Genesis Akwaji. I would visit him regularly in his office and in his home. I had actually wanted to adjust my ways all along, but I needed the right person to help me to change. He taught me that my victory and my peace is all inside me and doesn’t come from other people around me.
And now you are mentoring others…
After several interactions with this mentor, I realized that I could also be a respectable person in society. I saw in my class other guys who were going through similar struggles as I was. I became a mentor for others while still in secondary school. When these guys wanted to date a girl and she refused, she would become the enemy and they wanted to see her cry every day. I gathered together guys in my class, in my social cohort, into a kind of club and I would talk with them. I asked, “If you have a girlfriend and someone tries to hurt her, what would you do?” They said they would fight and even kill the person. I said, “Okay. Now think of dividing yourself into two people and consider one side hurts your girlfriend and the other side is fighting back. How do you fight with yourself?” I told them, this is what you need to do every day. Tell yourself the lady you see in front of you is as human as you are. No one had spoken to them like this or made them think in this way before, and they started following my example.
What do you believe are the root causes of the violence against women that you see in your community?
Men fear being dominated by women. There are different social levels at which gender-based violence really shows itself. At the level of a relationship the guy feels, “Okay I am the one providing and so the lady has to listen to me.” He doesn’t understand that it’s not about buying the relationship; it’s about sharing. Also, as a society, as Africans, there are cultural norms which have reduced the woman to a certain place in the community, above which she has no voice. There is also that aspect of economic difference: Women tend to earn lower than men and it becomes a real issue. There is widespread ignorance about women’s rights.
How can men help address these underlying causes?
Guys are more likely to listen to other guys, so it is very important for guys to take an active role in speaking up. I have seen gender segregation even in the offices of human rights organizations. When a lady brings up a point, some guys say, “Hey my friend, sit down, you do not have the right to talk here.” When I joined a new organization called Hope for Girls Foundation, I could see that the few ladies in the organization tended to be a little quiet when it came to contributing ideas, while the guys would always be the ones to talk.
When I’m meeting with the men in the organization, I remind them, “you are working with ladies for ladies. Girls understand the problems of other girls more than we do as men. And so we should give girls and women the platform to really express what they are feeling.” This has really changed the scope of the organization. Now the ladies on staff are speaking up more and the girls involved in the initiatives are also empowered to contribute ideas.
Today you are still mentoring boys and supporting the empowerment of women and girls. How is this work perceived in your community?
I will tell you, it’s not an easy task. But when you sign up for it, it is because you know what you want from it. I was trying to understand social concerns and my male friends would tease me for how much time I was spending hanging out with ladies. There is that reproach that comes from men. Especially when we sit in a gathering and I voice out truths on promoting ladies and their rights in society. It becomes a total war. I don’t care. Just as I have a sister who I don’t want someone to batter on, I don’t want to batter on someone’s sister.
It doesn’t matter to me at all if they say about me, “this one is on the ladies’ side.” If you have a conscience as a human being then you will understand where I stand. And if you don’t understand, it doesn’t mean much to me because I know why I am doing this work.
What is your ultimate vision?
I want to see a smile on the face of every lady. And I don’t mean just any type of smile. There’s a smile where you hide your tears because you don’t want trouble, and then there is the genuine smile that comes from the heart. I want to see every lady smile from her heart. Today, I am a happy person knowing that what I started as a youth is yielding fruits. Much can still be done and I hope to see this work with young people spread widely across the country, continent, and the entire globe.