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The unheard voices of Cameroon's Anglophone War

June 06, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#women's rights, #Cameroon, #gender-based violence, #sexual abuse
by:Njodzeka Danhatu
The ongoing conflict in Cameroon has been affecting women disproportionately. Local NGOs are now racing to support them, but can non-profits alone tackle this issue?

Each passing day is challenging for Yvnonne Tifuh, who is still wondering what happened to her husband. It has been over four years since he went missing at the peak of the conflict in Southwestern Cameroon.

“On that day, I was supposed to go to the farm with him, but since I was two months pregnant and was not feeling fine, he went alone,” Tifuh, 28, told FairPlanet. “On his way back from the farm, he called me via the telephone and said he was about to cross the bridge.” That was their last conversation to date. 

At the time, they were living in Muyuka in Southwestern Cameroon, an embattled region where Anglophone Separatists have been fighting for a breakaway nation for the past six years. 

According to Tifuh, on the day her husband went missing, intense fighting broke out between the Cameroonian Military and separatists. She suspects that her husband might have been killed in the crossfire, although his body has never been identified.

“Until today, nobody has told me what happened to my husband,” Tifuh,  who now cares for her son by herself, added. “After I gave birth, things have not been easy for me. The child is now three years old. The trauma was too much.”

After receiving counselling and support in her new home in Buea, the capital of Cameroon's South West region, Tifuh is doing her best to get by. But not knowing what happened to her husband keeps traumatising her.

Tifuh's story is just one example of the harsh reality faced by countless women and girls who are impacted by the ongoing separatist conflict in Cameroon's two English-speaking regions. 

Florence Kanjo, 24, was in Form Five in Secondary in Bafia, Fako Division of Cameroon’s South West region, when the war broke out in 2016. Since the conflict disrupted schools in the hinterland, she could not finish her education. 

“We were running into the bushes each time there was fighting,” Kanjo told FairPlanet. She hoped that the war would end quickly and that she would be able to complete her studies, but alas this no longer seems to be an option. 

Since she stayed at home, her parents had married her off to a man. The marriage was unsuccessful, however, and the two divorced just a few months afterwards, while Kanjo was pregnant. 

“From there, I struggled alone and cared for the pregnancy,” she said. “Now that I am a single parent, I cannot put in mind that I want to go to school again. I need to struggle to raise my child. If the war did not start, life could have been good. I had my plans, I loved school.” 

Four years later, Kanjo has yet to fully recover from the abuse she suffered in her marriage. 

Belligerents accused of violating women’s rights  

The Anglophone war of separation erupted in 2016 and escalated in 2017. Over 6,000 people have been killed since and over a million have been displaced internally and externally. 

The war has had a particularly devastating impact on women. According to the United Nations, in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon in 2020, 4,300 cases of gender-based violence and documented sexual assault were reported. 

In certain areas, military personnel abuse their power by forcing women and children to engage in inappropriate sexual behaviour.

Local NGOs step in

Local non-governmental organisations in the conflict-affected regions are providing crucial support to female survivors, helping them to overcome depression and trauma.

Reach Out, a non-profit that is based in Buea and works across the region, is one such organisation. According to its Programme Director, Ngasa Pride Yanu, the NGO has been working to end gender-based violence (GBV) in conflict-affected regions for over six years since the war started.  

“With the increasing incidence and prevalence of GBV as a result of the crisis, we have stepped up our activities in the areas of GBV awareness-raising and education, creation of GBV hubs in local communities led by trained grassroots women, [and] strengthened the GBV referral pathway,” Yanu told FairPlanet.

He added that Reach Out has thus far economically empowered over 350 GBV survivors to become self-reliant through small income generating activities and strengthened collaboration with traditional rulers, encouraging them to hold perpetrators of GBV accountable using local customs and laws, such as imposing monetary fines, confiscating animals, withholding access to locally-made wine or banishing them from the community. 

The organisation also provides mental health and psychosocial support to GBV survivors by, among other services, granting temporary accommodation at their ‘Peace House,’ which was built in 2022. 

Survivors receive ongoing support during their stay, including food, counselling, trauma healing, and life coaching from psychologists and case managers. Yanu explains that victims stay at the house until they feel empowered and have recovered sufficiently to embark on a journey towards independent living.

Empowering women through donations and training workshops

In addition to providing psychosocial support, Yanu added, Reach Out has offers economic empowerment and vocational training at the Peace House as well. 

“This is to ensure that accommodated survivors acquire livelihood skills which they can put to use when they leave the Peace House, thus eliminating their financial dependence on abusive partners,” he said.

These strategies are common among NGOs helping female victims of war in the conflict-affected regions of Cameroon. However, The Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa (CHRDA), a Buea-based organisaiton, has adopted a unique rehabilitation method through which they encourage women and girl victims to speak out about their abuse and advocate for their rights. 

Dr Fokum Violet, CHRDA’s Director, said the NGO conducts extensive advocacy on this issue. Most recently, it published a book entitled The unheard voices of the Anglophone War, which amplified the unheard voices of the conflict. “It is like giving voice to the voiceless, telling their stories, we went into the communities, did interviews to let the world know that these are the problems women are going through,” Dr Violet told FairPlanet. 

According to her, CHRDA is also engaged in litigation on behalf of female victims of the war through lawyers who take on pro-bonus cases.

“We also have partnerships with hospitals,” she added, “because some of these cases are rape cases [...] and the patient needs medical care. We call our focal point at the hospital to attend to the patient and give free treatment.”

NGOs' impact on the ground

Angela Enow, 48, a mother of six, can now provide for her family barely a year after CHRDA gave her a sewing machine. She was a prosperous seamstress in Kossala, Meme Division of Cameroon’s South West region, until the war broke out and her belongings were destroyed. She and her family escaped to Buea, leaving behind everything she has ever worked for. 

Before the war, Enow was providing for her family and empowering her workers through tailoring workshops she led. In Buea, she grew anxious as feeding her family and finding shelter became a serious challenge. In 2022, she was one of over 30 women from North West and South West regions to receive sewing machines from CHRDA. 

“Now I can sew dresses and earn some income like before,” Enow told FairPlanet. “I can pay house rent and send my children to school again. The gesture from CHRDA means a lot to me since my children were only hawking plantain chips here before we could survive.”

Meanwhile, Reach Out, through its empowerment programme as per its 2020 report, created wealth for over 1,500 women in the Fako, Meme and Ndian Divisions, and disbursed startup capital to women affected by the conflict. In 2019, the organisation was able to reach out to over 300,000 persons, with the majority being women in over three divisions in the South West.

Not a smooth ride 

But despite the notable progress made on the ground, these NGOs nonetheless face difficulties in carrying out their tasks. In some instances, they end up referring cases to international NGOs they are partnered with. Dr Violet explains that referrals of certain cases take place because CHRDA may lack the capacity to assist, especially when it comes to mental health. 

According to Yanu of Reach Out, there are only so many programmatic activities they can roll out on limited funding. 

“As a not-for-profit organisation, we do not generate any income to sustain our activities. There is a need for more funding, especially as this crisis remains one of the most underfunded humanitarian crises,” he stated, highlighting security challenges and quick staff turnover as some of the major hurdles they face.

He added that it is easy for humanitarian organisations to concentrate their activities in the relatively safe capital cities, such as Buea and Bamenda, but that it is in remote communities which are unsafe and where human rights abuse and GBV rates are highest. As their NGO targets these high-risk areas, their staff members continue to face serious threats to their lives. He therefore urges all stakeholders to recognise their position as a humanitarian organisation that strictly adheres to principles of neutrality and impartiality. 

“We are driven by our call for humanity and only care about the people in need. This necessitates our acceptance and protection on the field if we must serve the people in need,” he said.

Across affected regions, local NGOs are partnering with international organisations such as OCHA and foreign governments in order to better assist victims of the war. The strategies adopted, according to Yanu, are community-centred, and can serve as a source of inspiration for leaders and organisations tackling GBV elsewhere. 

“A grassroots or bottom-top approach, which empowers the women while gaining the engagement of boys and men, is of immense importance,” he concluded. “Local traditions and customs that propagate GBV can only be reversed by working with the very persons who enact and enforce these customs. This is why working with traditional rulers and community actors can make a big difference.”

Image by Reach Out.

Article written by:
Njodzeka Danhatu
Njodzeka Danhatu
Reach Out Executive Director, Esther Omam.
© Reach Out
Reach Out Executive Director, Esther Omam.
Paramount Ruler of Buea Robert Esuka Enderly and the South West Regional Delegate of Women Empowerment during the launch of the Peace House.
© Reach Out
Paramount Ruler of Buea Robert Esuka Enderly and the South West Regional Delegate of Women Empowerment during the launch of the Peace House.