2013 Joint Woman of the Year – Constance Nzeneu

Constance Nzeneu fled to the UK in 2005 from the threat of a forced marriage in Cameroon where she had trained as a lawyer.

After she applied for protection, she was dispersed to Cardiff whilst her asylum claim was being processed. Like thousands of asylum seekers, Constance had no choice over where she would live and had no right to work, but she did not stand still, with the help of a training she became involved in advocacy and community work, This is how che describes those early days:  “I was refused asylum and I realized that there were so many people out there with similar or worse experiences than mine. There was no project led by women seeking sanctuary and I think you can’t really understand this situation – being destitute, being homeless and thinking what am I going to eat tonight, and I don’t want to be a burden to anyone, and how long am I going to be allowed to stay, and I’m about to be deported, what should I do…unless you’ve been through it yourself.”

She now leads Women Seeking Sanctuary Advocacy Group Wales (WSSAG), which she set up to support other women to cope with exile, and to raise awareness within Wales about why women seek sanctuary. The group is now 40 strong.

When she was going through the asylum process, Constance says that she was never believed by the Home Office, but that she was supported by the people of Wales: ” I’d just had my first child and I was well known because of all my community work, so people responded with real sympathy and compassion and my MP Kevin Brannan and the Welsh Assembly Member Julie Morgan, really got behind me.  3,000 people signed a petition asking for me to stay in the first 3 months – including my doctor and my health visitor. And the campaign made people aware of the plight of asylum seekers. People didn’t realize that like many people seeking sanctuary I didn’t have the right to work. I was destitute and living on vouchers I couldn’t even pay for a bus and I have two kids, so I had to walk everywhere. And this went on for 3 years.”

And so driven by a belief that ‘the more people are aware, the better the system will be’, she contributes to numerous governmental and non-governmental initiatives on migration, equality and violence against women through the Wales Migration Partnership.

In 2011, in partnership with Ethnic Minority Communities First, WSSAG produced a book called ‘Seeking Sanctuary: A Journey of Despair and Hope’ which gave them the opportunity to speak at local schools and community centres about who they are and why they came to Wales.   She encourages her fellow women refugees to ‘gather themselves, stand up and move on’.  And she fits this all in alongside raising a family and studying social science at university.

Like the other winners, Constance provides support to individuals in need on a daily basis, but she also works on a more strategic level educating and influencing politicians, the media and the public. “At the moment I’m working on getting support for asylum seekers who are experiencing domestic violence, because they’re not entitled to anything. But they are women first and they need protection. We’ve raised it with the Wales Migration Partnership and Welsh Assembly Government. The report is due soon and we hope we will use it to lobby decision makers in Wales to make resources available to women seeking sanctuary.”, she said at the ceremony.

Her tireless work was recognised by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action in 2010, when she was awarded the Wales Volunteer Award of the Year, and her campaigning work resulted in funding from Cardiff Council’s Ethnic Minorities Communities First project. Constance also won the The Citizen’s Voice award in the Inspire Wales Award in 2011.

photography by Jason Wen, Spot of Bother 

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