Sally Mboumien constantly hears the heartbreaking stories of rape, sexual assault, and defilement. “The story usually goes like this: You either come at a police checkpoint, and the officer asks you to provide your identification, all this time he would be eyeing the young lady to satisfy his sexual exploits,” Mboumien said.
The founder of Common Action for Gender Development (COMAGEND), said the officer would then hold off the identity papers and wait until everyone has left. Then accuse the lady of committing a crime before asking her for sexual favor or to date him so she can go scot-free. “At least one in three girls experience this in Northwest and Southwest Cameroon,” she said, adding that the police officers usually defend themselves by saying it was consensual, which in most cases isn’t.
There have been nearly 500 recorded rape and sexual assault incidents in the first quarter of this year alone. In 2020, the UN reported 4,300 related cases.
“Sexual violence is growing in such large proportions that we fear for the future,” Omam Esther, Executive Director of Reach Out Cameroon, a non-governmental organization, told DW. “We don’t know what may happen the next day. This conflict has aggravated the phenomenon of sexual violence, where people take advantage of the most vulnerable in our communities to the most, especially the girls and women.”
Call to ‘stop the flow of blood’
Several women in the restive region, who wished to remain anonymous, said the violence had reached a dangerous level. “It’s painful when I look at it. They have killed my brother, but what can I do than to beg for peace,” one woman said.
Another woman lamented the endless bloodletting: “We don’t sleep. There are incessant killings every day. We want an end to hostilities. We want that they should put down the guns, stop the flow of blood.”
According to the UN, the Anglophone crisis has claimed more than 3,500 lives. Over one million have fled their homes. Many of them are women and children who are victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
“The question is, are the victims ready to talk?” Mboumien pondered.
“When you have a few who want to tell their story, at some point, they are threatened. Remember, most of these crimes are perpetrated by those in uniforms or fighters who have the guns.”
Hunger strike to raise awareness
Meanwhile, at least one thousand women embarked on a hunger strike this week to draw global attention to the conflict. The women are pressing US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step in and help restore peace in the troubled country.
“I have not eaten for seven days. I am very weak, hungry, devastated, dehydrated. As I am speaking, I have a severe headache,” one of the women on hunger strike told DW.
Harsh as it may be, the women say they will continue starving until world leaders find reasonable solutions to the crisis. “We are not backing out now. We are not backing down. We will continue the hunger strike,” Frida Baye Ebai, the coordinator of the strike, said. “We call on other sisters to join us. It’s a personal commitment. We are not forcing anyone,” Ebai told DW.
She said the women’s identity would remain a secret for fear of reprisals either from government troops or the separatists.
“I have lost children because of this crisis. I have lost nephews. We are
the ones who feel the pains of childbirth,” one striking woman said, adding that they are the ones who feel the pain of children growing up without a parent. “That’s why we are taking this firm commitment to go on this hunger strike.”
No let up in violence
Fighting has reached alarming levels in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions. The recent attack took place in the locality of Galim in the neighboring French-speaking West region, with separatists carrying out a daring raid on a military outpost. The fighting left 12 separatists and four soldiers dead.
Awa Fonka Augustine, governor of the West region, said the government was very concerned by the escalation. “The head of state [President Paul Biya] has stretched an olive branch and has requested for dialogue. Why do we continue killing ourselves in this manner? It is really regrettable, and it’s an act to condemn.”
The Biden administration has already signaled a readiness to act, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying it was time for the US to act decisively on Cameroon’s crisis.
The conflict began when teachers and lawyers in the Anglophone region took to the streets on October 6, 2016. They were protesting alleged government efforts to assimilate the two Anglophone regions’ legal and educational systems into the French system. The government retaliated by using lethal force. Consequently, an armed separatist movement that has since splintered into different factions emerged.