On 7 September 2018, hundreds of women rallied in a stadium in the city of Bamenda, in the north-west region of Cameroon to protest multiple abuses against them, their husbands and their children. The women, all English-speakers, say they have endured unimaginable adversity ever since an initially modest protest erupted in 2016 against the marginalisation of the country’s two anglophone regions by the francophone-dominated government of President Paul Biya, who is currently seeking his seventh term in office.
As they sat on the ground, the women cried, shared testimonies and sang songs of lamentation while others simply prayed to God for peace. The women want an immediate end to the crisis which has afflicted the north-west and south-west regions over the last two years.
The women carried tens of placards with slogans such as “We want our husbands and children back home” and “Women need peace”. They also called on the government and separatist forces to agree to a ceasefire. Their counterparts in the south-west region staged a similar protest in the town of Buea on 29 August 2018.
It is thought that over 400 civilians, soldiers and policemen have been killed since President Biya declared war on separatist forces in November 2017.
The escalating conflict began back in October 2016, when English-speaking lawyers in Cameroon opposed the appointment of French-speaking judges to their courts. A few other frustrated groups, amongst them teachers, later joined in peaceful protests against decades of under-investment and other government policies which they said discriminate against the country’s English-speaking regions. The protests grew and the government responded with force: over 40 protesters were killed and over 100 were injured in just a few days around 1 October 2017.
In recent months, armed secessionists seeking to establish the independent Federal Republic of Ambazonia (Southern Cameroons) have been engaged in frequent and violent gun battles with the government’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion, which is also leading the fight against Boko Haram in the far north of the country. Government forces have been accused of carrying out a number of atrocities and human rights violations, which the government has promised to investigate.
The multifaceted impacts on women
In the meantime, the upsurge in hostilities has compounded pre-existing vulnerabilities for women, girls and children in Cameroon’s English-speaking regions.
No fewer than 21,000 people have fled to neighbouring Nigeria, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), while in the south-west region alone, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that 246,000 people have been internally displaced. In the south-west region (where most of the fighting has taken place), entire communities have been razed by fire, leaving locals desperate for shelter and safety.
Most internally displaced families have abandoned their homes, seeking shelter in nearby bushland or safer parts of the country. In some cases, women have been abandoned by their husbands who have joined the secessionist forces. As a result, approximately 68 per cent of Cameroon’s IDPs are said to be women.
As those displaced primarily live in rural areas and depend on farming for sustenance and income, the fact that it is no longer safe for most women to access their fields has had a devastating impact on local communities.
“I was not able to harvest the groundnut I planted on a large parcel of land during the last planting season due to the fighting,” Mbangsi Judith, a rural woman in Kombone Bakundu, south-west Cameroon tells Equal Times. She says feeding her five children and grandson is only possible thanks to food donations made by local NGOs. “I have been scared to go to the farm. My farm is close to the road, along the Kumba-Ekondo Titi highway. At times, soldiers making use of this road shoot sporadically before continuing to their destination,” she says.
Women and girls in conflict-hit areas are also struggling to get access to medicine and menstrual hygiene products. While some have resorted to using age-old methods like plants, rags and locally-made pads, others rely on the few pads donated by aid organisations. Njikem Nerville, a social worker with Authentique Memorial Empowerment Foundation (AMEF), a local humanitarian organisation in Kumba, describes the situation as “despicable and pitiful.”
As schools, hospitals and entire villages are destroyed (mostly by government forces), the educational prospects of a generation of young people are being affected. Girls who cannot attend school are particularly at risk, as they become prone to early pregnancy, difficult deliveries due to their young age and the risk of obstetric fistula. Pregnant or lactating women in the region currently have no access to basic health services and are at significant risk of water-borne diseases because they are forced to drink from contaminated sources. There have also been reports of some armed separatist groups forcing young girls to leave their families and join their ranks to help with cooking and other chores.
For those who manage to escape to the safety of Cameroon’s major cities such as the commercial hub of Douala and the capital city of Yaoundé, women often encounter various challenges when attempting to find work and accommodation.
As a result, some young women find themselves engaging in sex work in order to survive. A young woman who fled to Yaoundé from Bamenda tells Equal Times that she became a stripper in order to make ends meet. “I don’t dance for the love of it. I just need money to be able to eat, pay my bills and take care of my mother and younger brother back home,” says the woman, who asked to remain anonymous.
The crisis has also compelled women in some local communities in the north-west region to break their well-respected and age-old traditions. In such villages, the digging of graves and other aspects of the burial process has always been the exclusive preserve of men. But since most adult men are either engaged in combat or in hiding for fear of reprisals, women currently have to take burial matters into their hands, which is a major cultural taboo.
The last nine months has also resulted in an uptick in violence against women. Human Rights Watch has documented evidence of abuses perpetrated by both the government and separatist forces. Arbitrary arrest, torture and detention, even of pregnant women, has become the new norm.
Women and girls have been the victims of multiple cases of sexual exploitation. To navigate the dusk-to-dawn curfew in the north-west region and to avoid the threat of reprisals, some women are forced to offer sex in exchange for protection or sustenence. “One can find as many as 13 or 14 girls sharing a single room, where each one has her turn to go in search of men and provide food for the others,” according to Rita Agbor, a gender officer for the volunteer-run feminist advocacy group Women For a Change (WFAC) Cameroon.
There have also been a number of rapes reported, with many more going unreported. In one of the most high-profile cases, Arthur Mbida, a government soldier, is currently standing trial for allegedly raping a 17-year old lactating mother at a military check point in Bamenda this July.
Searching for peace
International, regional and national dignitaries, including UN Secretary General António Guterres and Commonwealth Secretary General Patricia Scotland, have called for dialogue to resolve the crisis, particularly ahead of the 7 October 2018 presidential election. But so far, the conflicting parties have failed to take concrete steps to pave the way for meaningful dialogue.
Cameroon’s Prime Minister Philemon Yang says the government is trying to resolve the crisis, citing the introduction of a US$23 million emergency fund to provide humanitarian assistance for the north-west and south-west regions. But critics say money is meaningless without an end to the violence.
In July, the Archbishop Emeritus of Douala, Cardinal Priest Christian Tumi joined other religious authorities to call for an ‘All Anglophone Conference’ in prelude to a national dialogue, promising a “unique pastoral” approach to resolve the crisis. However, the conference is yet to take place.
For feminist activist Agbor from WFAC Cameroon, the hope for peace lies with the country’s women. And she urges more women organisations to get together to hold regular strategy meetings, marches and protests to “restore peace to our land.” She continues: “This is what is being done by women of the civil society organisations who have mobilised themselves to form the South-West North-West Women’s Task Force. We are tired of losing our children and burying our husbands.”