The Ongoing Conflicts in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon.
The role of women in armed conflicts is more prominent than imagined. Besides being victims due to their vulnerability, women have played frontline roles in revolutions, independence struggles and wars in many countries. The focus on this write up is the role women have played so far on the ongoing crises in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, and the effects of the crises on them. What started in October 2016 as a teachers and lawyers strike demanding better working conditions in these two English speaking regions of Cameroon degenerated into a full-blown war when the Government of Cameroon resorted to the use of force to suppress the striking lawyers and teachers. All attempts to bring peace in these regions have failed as separatists at home and abroad used the opportunity to step in with the quest for the independence of former British Cameroon; which they now refer to as Ambazonia.The war is ongoing now for almost three years ,with people dying every day, property destroyed and the entire economy of these two regions on a decline as economic activities have been grounded. Women have been forcefully recruited as combatants in the different armed groups that surface every day in the former British Southern Cameroon, while many have lost valuable property and are forced to relocate to other regions of the country, now referred to as Internally displaced persons or refugees in neighboring Nigeria. Unlike men, women face specific vulnerabilities, ranging from sexual exploitation to post traumatic stress disorder that plays a very negative role in the rest of their lives. While hoping for a peaceful solution to this conflict soonest, it is wishful thinking to take into consideration the specific needs of women in the post conflict reintegration measures, in other to ensure lasting peace and human development.
Before diving into the core of this write up, it is imperative to highlight a brief history of Cameroon, and how accumulated anger in the English-speaking regions escalated into war since 2016 till date. What is today known as Ambazonia by separatist was the former British Southern Cameroon. It is the English-speaking part of Cameroon, and constitutes 20% of the population where as 80% is French speaking. The marginalization of English Cameroon and its citizens dates back to the colonial History of these regions, and the peak of this frustration and anger took a dramatic turn in October 2016 when English speaking teachers and lawyers took to the streets to demand better working conditions from the regime in place. The use of force by the government to repress the angry lawyers and teachers, pushed other English-speaking Cameroonians all over the world to rise up against the regime and to demand the restoration of British Southern Cameroon. The result is the war-torn English Cameroon that we have today, with people losing their lives, body parts and valuable property. The reunification of Cameroon was poorly conducted, and anglophones have continuously feel they were assimilated to French Cameroon and since then have been marginalized economically, politically and culturally. The fight for secession and the restoration of the State of British Southern Cameroon has been on the lamp light for years now, with Cameroonians living abroad taking the lead in the formation of armed groups to fight the military. To the government of Cameroon, the armed forces are “terrorists” and have been treated as such since 2016, while the international community has been mute. Cameroonians from the regions are being murdered in cold blood every day by the military and the armed groups, that has been popularly known across the regions as amba boys.
Women in Armed Groups
Women are dotted in the different armed groups facing the military in Southern Cameroon, playing varied roles; ranging from fighters to cooks, informants and sex partners for men who go to the war front daily. Despite the persistent of gender stereotypes, armed conflicts like what is currently going on in Cameroon turn to ignore the traditional gender roles, precipitated by the need to make good use of the available human resources. As such, women are not exempted and sometimes lured or forced to face tasks and risks that under normal circumstances are reserved for men. With these armed groups compensated and remunerated by “English speaking” Cameroonians resident abroad, it is even seen an employment opportunity for many and women can’t be indifferent than picking up arms to join their male counterparts to face the trained military of the Cameroon armed force.
This is not unique to Cameroon, previously in Asia for example, women have been active participants during India’s independence struggle against the British. The number of women combatants in armed conflicts was to range between one-tenth to approximately one-third (Bouta et al 2005). Elsewhere in the world, women’s participation in armed conflicts can not be under estimated, it was visible in countries like Algeria, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Indonesia.
Women have become an active part of the different factions of the “Ambazonia Defense Forces” for many reasons. Like the self-proclaimed generals, many women and girls just want to feel valued or make a name for themselves. Armies can provide a career with perception of leadership and strength (Keairns 2002). With the brainwashing and propaganda associated with the ongoing conflict in the English Cameroon, it is easier to lure women into the defense groups; although high illiteracy rate and lack of employment opportunities for women can be a great push factor (Sorensen 1998). Women play varied roles in the different camps and armed groups across “Ambazonia”; propagandists, cooks, messengers, spies, handling logistics and disbursement of funds raised through kidnappings or from leaders in the diaspora. In a typical non state army like the ambazonia defense groups, women are used as sex partners and some are, some are raped daily or even forced to act as “wives” of male combatants (Mazurana and Carlson 2004). However, the ratio of women with arms is far below that of men.
Effects of the ongoing Conflict on Women
Although the armed conflict is still ongoing in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon, the consequences are already so glaring on women actively involved and on the entire female population of these regions. Women in these regions are mostly farmers, depending entirely on their farm produce for a livelihood. For 3 years now, the economy of these regions is on a down drain; it has become practically impossible for women to go to the farms or sell their farm produce due to indiscriminate shooting and kidnappings by the Cameroon military and the amba boys respectively. Even women who are not actively participating in the war have suffered and are still suffering from the consequences. There has been gross human rights violation perpetuated by the military and amba boys under the watchful eyes of the international community and the government of Cameroon. Amongst the Universal human/women’s rights violated are:
- The right to life
- The right to freedom from violence, torture and cruel inhuman treatment
- The right to freedom from genocide, ethnic cleansing and rape as a war strategy
- The right to self determination
- The right to the highest attainable standard of physical am mental health
- The right to adequate standard of living, including adequate food, medical care and necessary social services. (adopted from the Universal Human rights)
Sexual violence against women and girls is a daily occurrence in the conflict-stricken regions of Cameroon. It is difficult to be so exact with the figures as of now, since many of such acts go unreported. However, deplorable images are seen on social media daily. The situation of sexual violence in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon is very similar to that in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo that has been in armed conflicts for decades now. According to the United Nations Population Fund report,16000 cases of sexual violence were recorded within a year. The figure looks frightening, but with the persistence of armed conflicts in Sothern Cameroon, the future of women and sexually related crimes is oblique. It is very evident that sexual violence against women and girls is the most common crime in times of war, and the consequences are often far reaching.
Mortality rate is on the rise; women, men, and children dying every day. The surviving active population of men in these regions are taking refuge in the bushes for fear of the unknown, as the military now shoots and burn houses indiscriminately; a desperate attempt to fish out amba boys from the villages. The elderly and children who can’t flee these hostilities are left at the mercy of women. Women in some parts of the Northwest, like in Kom and Bafut have been spotted digging graves to bury war victims; a traditional practice that is often reserved for men. The vulnerability of pregnant women, nursing mothers and female heads of households in these war-torn regions of Cameroon are glaring and sad enough, getting worst by day. The fact that many of the male folk are absent from many anglophone communities heightens the insecurity and danger for women and children, accelerating breakdown of the traditional protection and support mechanisms which women have relied on for decades. However, some of these “empowerment” changes can be seen as a positive development for women, pushing them to be proactive in sustaining and supporting their families; unlike before where most women in these regions were professional house wives totally dependent on men who are on the run now, detained or have been killed as result of the ongoing conflict.
The ongoing conflict in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon have caused untold misery and suffering to the people living in these regions. Women’s involvement in the conflict is multifaceted, apart from taking active part as “fighters”, they are being targeted for the various roles they play as women in the different camps. The government of Cameroon and the international community needs to step in with humanitarian measures to improve the lives of women who have been caught up in the liberation war.
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