Like so many Pollination Project grantees, Jude Thaddues Njikem is deeply engaged and vibrantly connected. But what makes Jude unique among these boldly compassionate people is his broad range of projects across multiple communities. Impressive as it might be, simply listing his many affiliations, partnerships, and titles would not allow for a real glimpse at Jude and his efforts. Building local, regional and global partnerships to foster awareness of human rights violations and opportunities, he is a force for change in his school, his town, his region and his country, someone who is actively constructing a more humane and respectful Cameroon.
Jude’s interest in human rights began in high school. “Let’s come together, let’s have a club, let’s try to reach out to the wider community,” he says, describing the origin of Youth for Equality, a secondary school project he began as a “fun activity.” But the fun had a purpose: “We tried to raise awareness about the rights and responsibilities of young people within this kind of environment.”
And though he admits that he didn’t really know what he was doing, the foundation of his passion for human rights and his ability to build connections, coalitions and networks was being set. “We wanted to reach out to our fellow students, we wanted to talk to them about human rights, but not just about human rights, but about responsibilities as well.”
Perhaps these responsibilities began at home in Southwest Cameroon, where Jude grew up as one of seven siblings. Jude’s father died when he was a teenager, and his mother was limited by the educational opportunities that had been denied to her. “My mom was withdrawn from school because back then the mentality was, you are a woman, you shouldn’t go to school. So she kept reminding us, and telling us, ‘if I had the opportunity I would have been better placed than I am now.’”
A large part of his drive to help women and girls be “better placed” is to help them be better treated. As a young student he had accepted the relationships that existed between teachers and students. “We use to say ‘STMs,’ meaning sexually transmitted marks, to signify students whom we thought to have sexual relationships with teachers in the hope of passing exams.”
But as a teacher, Jude saw these physical and emotional abuses of power and status from a very different viewpoint. “Statutory rape is when an older person has sexual relationships with a minor.” He realized that most parents, teachers, school authorities, even the students themselves, accepted this behavior as normal and did not “know this was violence they were experiencing.” And so Jude’s first step was toward awareness. “We needed young people to get an understanding of this violence” and for them to work with “school authorities to change the mindset.”
Addressing Sexual Abuse in Schools through Human Rights Training was awarded a TPP grant in May of 2014, says Jude, “to promote education on human rights so children there don’t grow up as future abusers or future victims.” The project is a human rights training, aimed at strengthening the understanding of rights by adolescent girls and boys, teachers and school personnel, as well as parents and community leaders. “This is an urgent response to the high incidences of sexual violence and human rights abuses of vulnerable people at schools, at homes and in the communities of the South West Region of Cameroon.” The program holds interactive workshops at schools across the region and hopes to spread its message to the country’s government, which would implement it in other areas of the country.
“What we saw was that all of these things happen in our communities. And most times women are not able to talk about it. Girls learn from their parents, their mothers, so if their mothers are not able to talk about it, it transitions to their young girl. We then have a culture of silence. So this is what we wanted to break. And this is why we train young girls to go to communities and train other young girls, their mothers and community leaders, to tell them we must break this cycle of silence and speak out against inequality.”
And perhaps this is where Jude’s unique ability to engage and build is revealed. Rather than be content to simply train members of the community to become aware of human rights abuses within that community, Jude created another more broadly focused project called Girls Against Gender Inequality which included not only sexual abuse, but also genital mutilation, child marriage and access to education.
Currently, GAGI is recruiting, training, and deploying volunteers to organize gender equity workshops in several communities throughout Cameroon. Volunteers working with GAGI, advocate for women’s rights and equality by holding meetings and workshops with community leaders, women’s groups, youth groups at schools, and even local radio talk show hosts at which volunteers distribute educational materials and instruct community members on the various manifestations of gender violence and their effects on overall community health and growth.
And though there are other programs and leaders that are working on similar projects in Cameroon, as TPP Programs Director James West said, it wasn’t so much the uniqueness of Jude’s vision, but the “organization of his vision,” not just his passion, but “the purposefulness of his drive,” not just his ability to expand, but his “strategic capacity building.”
Perhaps this is best exemplified by Jude’s visits to other social justice projects in Cameroon. “I have to travel for five to six hours to go visit these projects but it is always worthwhile because you get to see young people fighting the odds and building stronger communities. I have learned among other things that young people have capacity and are determined to deliver on social justice projects.”
Setting off across dusty miles to network, share and build is something that, though it comes naturally to Jude, truly sets him apart. “Only one grantee visited all of the sites of social justice projects in his area, and that was Jude,” says James.
His rationale for reaching out and building social relationships in his endeavor to bring social justice is elegantly rational. “We are social beings and therefore cannot work in isolation. We must also note that no one organization solves a particular problem, that many organizations try to solve different problems in their communities. Therefore it is important to work with different organizations so that we can work together and use an integrated approach, that we share experiences and learn from each other.”
The miles have taken Jude further and higher than many in his village might have expected. Just recently, he participated in Women Deliver International Women’s Rights Global Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. On a remarkable panel with noted author Shereen El Feki, and international NGO Director, Dr. Gary Barker, Jude’s insights about grinding out change in Cameroon stood out for their grittiness and barely contained energy.
While the panel discussed broadly international issues and long range projects, Jude spoke of a particular man who questioned him about women’s rights, and suggested that these “western” ideas were breaking down their culture. Jude asks the man: “‘What about your wife? Your sister? If she is doing the same work as the man next to her, shouldn’t she bring home the same pay?’ ‘Of course,’ he answered. ‘And should she face sexual abuse at school or work? ‘Of course not.’ Then this is where we start to make the change, one person at a time, one heart at a time.”
Jude also talked about men in his community who question him about his motivation. What is his stake? What advantage is he trying to gain from all of this destabilizing social justice rhetoric? Jude just smiles at these notions that get to the bottom of what Jude is fighting for: that honest relationships and humane actions are more than simply transactional, that too often “culture” is invoked to concentrate power by those who grasp it most tightly.
And so Jude begins again, over and over again. Stoically, tenaciously. “I meet young people, and they do not like the way things are, but they are not willing to stand up, to make the change, and so I say to them…”
Jude is willing to do the persistent work of building programs and connections one person, one heart at a time, and to do it with vision and purposefulness. Whether it is in his school, in his community, in other villages and towns in Cameroon, or on an international panel in another hemisphere, Jude stands up, speaks up, and to fights for those who are unable to fight for themselves.