Joya Taft-Dick

Joya Taft-Dick (Vital Voices - Africa Businesswomen’s Network, ABWN): Joya was born in Vermont and spent much of her youth on the move with her father – a UN official – in Africa and South Asia. After graduating from Middlebury College in 2006, she spent a year working in Colombo, Sri Lanka with a local women’s group and public health organizations. Joya then moved to Washington D.C where she spent two years working with a Congressional Commission on sexual violence in U.S prisons and jails. At the time of her fellowship, Joya was pursuing her Master’s degree at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. After her fellowship, Joya wrote: “Being around my colleagues and CBWN’s members was truly inspiring. The fellowship reminded me that I can operate very independently, that I am truly adaptable, and that I am happiest ‘in the field.’ I leave Cameroon with some rediscovered 'joie de vivre’.”

A few thoughts on women in public spaces…

22 Jul

As I slowly get to know the members of the burgeoning Cameroon Businesswomen’s Network, its board members, and its staff (currently just Clemence, the Executive Secretary), I am also trying to gage what daily life is like for Cameroonian women.  Yes, it differs from area to area, it differs based on socio-economic standing, and it differs along other lines, that can be drawn within every country on the globe.  But I am nonetheless trying to get the women I speak to, from the President of CBWN’s own dental assistant, to the Executive Director of a development NGO, to describe their experience as a woman, in Cameroon.

I am of course then left with anecdotes, which do not amount to scientific research and/or data, and I am certainly no anthropologist.  However, it is these anecdotes, and every conversation I have ever had with women of all nationalities and creeds, that keep me thinking at night.

One particular theme has been prominent for me, of late.  Allow me to indulge.

I experience Cameroon as a white, Western woman.  This means certain things for my every day existence.  It means I am constantly having things hollered at me, from the innocent to the virtually pornographic.  And when I say constant, I mean constant.  It means I am inevitably approached if I dare sit anywhere by myself, with a book (although admittedly, women sitting alone here in public spaces is rare, unless she is selling something).  It even means I have my arm grabbed from time to time.

Now, I grew up in South Asia –I am more than familiar with what it means to stand out and attract a great deal of (largely unwanted) attention.  None of this is new (nor is it particular to Cameroon, of course).  However, it is a phenomenon that more and more over the years has fed into how I experience the world around me, and is one I think worth mentioning.  I also am very aware of the privilege that is associated with being a white, and namely American, woman in much of the world.  I just find it…interesting that I can be simultaneously perceived as someone of a higher socio-economic status, and yet also worthy of being spoken to like either a zoo animal or an exotic dancer.

Clémence, another 26-year-old young woman, from Cameroon, experiences her home differently than I do (obviously).  Tough as nails, Clémence has no problem navigating this city, at any hour of the day or night.  If I were a guy, I wouldn’t mess with Clémence.  That being said, she has told me stories, for example, of having been assumed to be a prostitute, if maybe eating at an expat-frequented restaurant, or seen talking to a white man.  As she and I left a restaurant together recently, a man out front told her to go elsewhere to find ‘clients’.  This apparently is not uncommon.  Unlike me, whose temper and patience can be lost at times, Clémence takes this commentary in stride and tells me that I cannot stop people from ‘expressing themselves.’

But can’t we?  I know that one of the complaints of the women working in market places here, is the way they are treated, and harassed by men, when trying to sell their produce.  I know that women, in public spaces, the world over, are susceptible to all kinds of harassment, from the seemingly ‘innocent’ cat-calling, to physical or sexual assault.

I feel like this is an issue that is brushed aside.  It is assumed that this is ‘just the way things are,’ or how men are programmed to operate, or perceived to be innocent bravado, etc.  But I am not convinced that it is a non-issue, and I know that a great deal of men out there don’t appreciate it, nor do they want their own sisters/mothers/cousins/wives/girl friends spoken to in a demeaning or overly sexualized way (or worse, of course).  So why is this still a part of most women’s daily existence, the world over?  From Washington D.C to Douala?

These are just a few anecdotes.  They don’t amount to much.  But there isn’t a woman out there who isn’t familiar with what I am talking about.  For most women, walking down the street is just DIFFERENT than a man walking down the street.  Not always worse, just different.  And instead of assuming that certain things are just the way they are, I am wondering if maybe we can’t start having a more frank conversation about what it would be like if I, or Clémence, could walk down a street, in any country, and not be treated like anything other than a living, breathing, dreaming, loving human being.

A living, breathing, dreaming, loving human being

Posted By Joya Taft-Dick

Posted Jul 22nd, 2010

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