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Cameroon: Violent acts against women buried by seven year conflict

Back-view of Cecilia’s burned skin after being assaulted by unknown gunmen in Bamenda.
Photo credit: Neba Jerome

 "I was physically assaulted by the mob because they found items belonging to the Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement party in my bag. They poured petrol on my body and set me on fire. Money that I had on me to buy my business items were also seized".

41-year-old Cecilia is a mother of four children and a survivor of Physical Violence, one of six types of Gender-Based Violence (GBV). GBV is phenomenon that has witnessed an increase within the English-speaking regions of Cameroon rocked by a socio-political crisis commonly called the Anglophone crisis since 2016.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in 2020 documented over 4300 cases of sexual and gender-based violence across the two Anglophone regions affected by the crisis.  Almost half of these cases are sexual or physical assault and rape. The United Nations office for the Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs OCHA reports these cases double to about 500 monthly and a couple of them are unreported due to varying reasons.

The Anglophone Crisis has resulted in the displacement of thousands within and out of the conflict zones in Cameroon. OCHA as of February 14th  2023 says over two million people are affected in the North West and South West Regions.

Amongst this number is Cecilia who narrates how she fled to Bamenda with her children and husband from Ngoketunja division, in the Northwest region of Cameroon when the conflict took a bloody twist. Fleeing with the hope of getting to a secured place, her life changed after she encountered the mob who assaulted her.

"When I got here, I started selling omo (detergents) and glycerine at the Bamenda Food Market. This particular day (December 6th, 2017) the town became tensed with gunshots and I ran to meet my husband who was attending an event organized by the  CPDM. On my way to the Grand Stand, the venue of the event, i met the mob who searched my bag and collected the money, I had to buy my business items", Cecilia recounts.

Adding that, her husband who militated with the ruling CPDM party(that had been banned in the two conflict zones) and had some party gadgets in her bag. "When they found these items, that is where my trouble started. One of them attempted hitting me with a hammer. I felt my body cold. They had poured petrol on me and set my body on fire. I had serious burns from my  back down to the lower part of my body" she adds.

CPDM is the Cameroon People’s Democratic Party, with the national chairman being the current Head of State, President Paul Biya.

However, she came in contact with a national non-governmental organization that turned things around for she and family. " My guiding angels came to me just when I struggled much after this incident. They gave me capital that enabled me engage in a petit business. I just thank God for them and for giving me another chance at life with my family. I was trained and given start-up capital to do business. It also came with table birds for me to carry-on in life" she said.

Cecilia attending to her table birds before stepping out for her other small businesses
Photo credit: Neba Jerome

Unlike Cecilia, 33-year-old Ajara, mother of four and currently 8 months pregnant isn't so lucky. Ajara is displaced from Boyo division in the Northwest, and explained the outcome of the Anglophone crisis has drastically affected her thirteen (13) year old marriage.

"My husband and I have lived happily for 13 years with four children. He has never laid a finger on me but when the crisis because too bloody in 2018, it affected us. My husband’s car was burned and my petit business set ablaze with other items stolen. We were left with nothing and had to flee to Bamenda. My husband became traumatized and angry each time I asked for money to run the home. He will beaten me  that I sometimes have to flee from the home to any place he can not find me. But when I think of my kids, I am forced to return" Ajara narrates.

Ajara's case like many remains unreported because she is ignorant of where to seek help.
 "I have no idea there are places I can report such an incident but even if I do, I am not comfortable because this is the father of my children. He wasn't like this before but the effect of the crisis caused him to be this way. He is even more angry I became pregnant lately, when we can not afford fees for the other four kids. I wake up every day praying on a miracle to happen. I haven't even prepared for the baby that can be born anytime soon".

Ajara is eight months pregnant in addition to  four others
Photo credit: Wanchia Cynthia

Enters GBV Expert

Nsono Josephine is a Gender-Based Violence expert affirms GBV is on the rise in the two English-Speaking regions of Cameroon. "The increase is as a result of the crisis which has caused many women and girls to be vulnerable. Some have been reached with different interventions by different organizations while others are still ignorant of where to seek help or how to approach these services for intervention. Our services are accessible and most of the organizations engage in doing referrals when a case is beyond their intervention” Nsono says.

She identifies the types of GBV to range from rape; sexual abuse; physical abuse; Emotional abuse; denial of resources, opportunities and services; and harmful traditional practices. 

The different interventions offered by organizations are medical and mental health care, psychosocial support, temporal shelter and access to justice which again are available at all levels”.

The victims must report any incident they encounter within their communities to organizations like Nkumu Fed Fed, Common Initiative for Sustainable Development COMINSUD, Doctor of the World Switzerland, Cameroon Baptist Convention Health Services CBCHS, Center for Human Rights and Peace CHRAPA, the Listening and Orientation Unit at the Bamenda Regional Hospital, Mother of Hope Cameroon MOHCAM, the Regional Delegation of Women’s Empowerment and the Family,  the nearest Police Station or the Cameroon Human Rights Commission using the toll free number 1523 for immediate intervention or referrals. COMINSUD and CBCHS have Safe houses for victims fleeing from the perpetrators.

Legal Provision, Punishment of GBV perpetrators

Gender-Based Violence is punishable by law in Cameroon. According to Barrister Nkengla Roland of Liberty Law Firm based in Bamenda- Cameroon, the law punishes perpetrators with fines and prison terms.
"Sections 296 to 356 of the Penal code stipulates the laws and punishment in relation to the types of GBV. Imprisonment ranges from 5-10 years and fines 100.000 FCFA to 1 million FCFA and even life imprisonment where violence leads to death." Barrister Nkengla reveals.

Barrister Nkengla opines for Gender-Based violence to be kicked out of communities more needs to be done. " There is a need to improve on the international and national instruments related to GBV. We must also make justice accessible to victims. Lawyers must be trained to properly understand how to handle GBV cases which is very sensitive. Many victims have left cases unreported or abandoned cases half-way because of the complex nature of the law" he adds.
GBV remains the most dominant form of human rights violations within communities in Cameroon caused by cultural, social, economic and political factors amongst others. It is phenomenon that begs to be eliminated and efforts geared at addressing it must be intentional.

Some cases of sanctioned perpetrators amongst others include the case of a minor raped in Bamenda in 2012, the perpetrator was sentenced to twelve (12) years imprisonment and fined 10 million FCFA. Another related to physical assault resulted in the perpetrator slammed 3 years in prison and a fine. These cases were picked up by some of the above mentioned organizations.

All hope is not lost!!

As a victim of GBV all hope is not lost as life continues. Evelyn is a GBV survivor who picked up her life after her ordeal. She was displaced from Bamali, a village in Ngoketunja Division and raped at the age of 13 by her step father who promised  paying her  tuition so she can learn tailoring.

I was vulnerable and desperate and he ended up not paying for the tailoring. I opened up about it but my mother did not believe me. I had a second chance at life  when I was selected as one of the 70  trainees for the UN women second chance education for women and girls affected by the crisis. I was trained as a tailor, handed start up kits, now I live a  normal life” Evelyn says.

By Wanchia Cynthia

*The names of survivors and victim were changed for security reasons.

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