The Women Fighting for Peace in Cameroon
By Kirthi Jayakumar
Image: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Cameroon continues to bear the brunt of the Anglophone Civil War. With its origins in colonial legacies, the conflict erupted in 2016 when protests were initiated by teachers and lawyers against the imposition of French legal institutions and French teachers in the Anglophone regions and schools. The protests also questioned the marginalization of Anglophone regions on socio-economic and political grounds. Starting out peaceful, the protests soon met with a military clampdown that then escalated tensions into a full-blown conflict in 2017 between the government and armed insurgents from Anglophone regions, who demanded complete secession from Cameroon.
Since 2017, Cameroon has been dealing with escalating tensions in the Northwest and Southwest regions. These tensions have culminated in violence and insecurity, and have displaced over 711,000 people. The conflict has had massive impacts on the community in addition to displacement.
Early last year, the United Nations declared that the situation in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon as a “complex humanitarian emergency,” acknowledging that over 2.3 million people lived in need of humanitarian assistance. The number of people killed since 2019 has risen exponentially, with massive numbers of people being displaced internally or moving out to Nigeria in pursuit of asylum as refugees. The COVID-19 pandemic complicated things, against the backdrop of violent clashes and human rights violations.
The impact of the conflict on women
The violent clashes and conflict in Cameroon has had gendered impacts. As many as 51% of the internally displaced people are women. Women face and are vulnerable to various forms of violence. In August 2020, Comfort Tumassang, a 34 year old woman from the Anglophone regions, was brutally tied up and slaughtered by armed separatist fighters, and another young woman, Mbah Florence, was brutally murdered on the ground that she had supposedly helped the government in the conflict.
Holding Inclusive and Sincere Dialogue
Cameroon adopted a National Action Plan (NAP) under the WPS Agenda in November 2017, which covered implementation for three years until 2020. Under the ambit of its NAP, the Government of Cameroon committed to supporting the rights of women during war, and to facilitate women’s engagement in peace processes. However, in an attempt to resolve the conflict peacefully, the government called for a national dialogue in September-October 2019, among a range of different stakeholders – but the women were excluded for the most part.
Even as the women were not given space at the “official” negotiating table, they have since taken it upon themselves to work for the peace they desire for their country. Recognizing the disastrous implications of the conflict, and the lack of governmental action toward ending the conflict, a group of women in the affected regions and beyond have come together to build peace. The South West North West Women Task Force, the Southern Cameroons European Women, the Christian Women Fellowship CWF, the Cameroon Baptist Convention Women’s Department, and the United Methodist Women Association in Cameroon have come together to call on the government to address the alarming rise in violent clashes.
Steadfast in the understanding that guns do not talk, but people do, the women of Cameroon – across the anglophone and French-speaking communities – have come together to build peace. Condemning every act of violence and calling for the peaceful resolution of the ongoing conflict, these women devote their time and energy to lobby for peace by reaching out to international organizations, diplomatic missions, and embassies, world over.
The women have faced tremendous pushback on several occasions. Accused of being “pretenders” because “the separatist fighters are their children and they are hiding and protecting them,” or of hiring protestors to stage the march, these women face resistance for standing up to systems and structures that enable and keep violence alive.
A feminist peace for Cameroon
The women of Cameroon are undoubtedly committed to their vision of peace. As their ceasefire call on the International Day of Peace (September 21, 2020) noted, they have called on the parties to the conflict to commit to and work toward peace. Among their recommendations, they’ve also called on the government to set up a gender-balanced, inclusive commission to make the peace negotiations gender inclusive and responsive. They’ve also called on the armed groups to agree to a 6-month ceasefire in order to facilitate a non-violent political space to enter into talks with the government and members of the Anglophone civil society, and to engage in talks to return peace to the land.