Setting the scene

The North-West and South-West (NWSW) regions of Cameroon have been engulfed in a violent crisis that started as a low-scale insurgency, but within a year had spread across the two regions. Separatists claim the area should form an independent state called “Ambazonia.” Serious confrontations erupted between Government Defence Forces and Non-State Armed Groups (NSAGs) and have led to frequent roadblocks and “ghost towns”, towns within these regions that are shut down on specific days and all commercial activities banned.

The looting and destruction of property, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians, perpetuated allegedly by both the NSAGs and the state military, have left civilians in the middle of a crossfire. Health and basic facilities, the educational system, and agricultural production have seriously deteriorated. The violence has forced almost a million people to flee their homes, and approximately 3,000 civilians have been killed. The Cameroon Situation Report (OCHA, 2021) estimates that three million people, from an Anglophone population of five million, have been affected by the conflict. Struggling with the virus and the conflict at the same time has created a dual-pronged crisis situation for families within these regions.

A study (Aljazeera News, 2021) carried out by the UN found that between January to March of this year, 500 cases of rape and sexual or physical assault and more than 500 other cases of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) were documented in the NWSW Anglophone regions. Numerous media reports (Cameroon Tribune, 2020) have showed up of women who have lost their lives through violence in the hands of  their partners (CHRD, 2020), or by the mercy of armed forces and insurgents within the NWSW regions and the borders of Cameroon as well. Violence against women and girls has become an urgent preoccupying reality, especially in the context of the pandemic, as indicated by these rising numbers.

 

COVID-19, the Anglophone crisis and Gender-Based Violence

In Cameroon, like in most countries across the globe, COVID-19 already has had a serious impact on women and girls. Combining this with the ongoing Anglophone crisis, this vulnerable group is increasingly afraid of becoming victims of Gender-Based Violence. With the implementation of mandatory lockdowns and restricted movements, women and girls who are already experiencing domestic violence are trapped in their homes with their predators and isolated from the people and resources that could help them.

In addition to this, it’s fair to infer that survivors’ vulnerability to abuse and need for protection services have increased due to mobility restrictions. This case has been seriously exacerbated by the presence of armed forces, both from the government and separatists, who parade the streets of towns of these regions intimidating these young women with guns and forcefully violating them in all forms. Fear is one of the most predominant emotions reported by most women and girls(Plan International, 2020), as they fear of being victims of random arrests, sexual harassments, rape, stray bullets, crossfire, and generalized violence. Women struggle to make a call or to seek help online due to the lack of access to private spaces.

The potential loss of income due to self-isolation is hugely felt by women as they are the ones largely involved in the informal market within these regions. The lack of information regarding what GBV services are being offered, coupled with the fears of contracting the virus at the few available service points, has created multiple barriers whereby survivors of GBV may be unable to seek support, unable to access services and unable to escape their abusers.

 

Social Protection as a tool to curb GBV

The African Union Guidelines on Gender Responsive Responses to COVID-19 (AUC, 2020a) has been developed to help member states target gender equality in all COVID-19 responses in Africa, in line with the African Union Constitutive Act (AUC, 2000).  These guidelines take into account key gender mainstreaming concepts, such as sex disintegrated data, gender budgeting, strategic partnerships and multi-sectorial approaches, effective and full inclusion of women, re-enforcing existing commitments to gender equality and women empowerment, just to name a few. These principles build the reference points for the different social protection strategies that can be used to curb GBV within the NWSW regions of Cameroon. Three main strategies can be applied within this context:

  • Awareness-raising and campaigns;
  • Strengthening services for women;
  • Women empowerment through livelihood support.

 

1. Awareness-Raising and campaigns

Raising awareness and promoting education on GBV is a very important tool that can be used to disseminate information that promotes learning about GBV prevention and response techniques. Creating this awareness will provide these vulnerable women and girls with an understanding of the existing stigma related to GBV as well as the preventive measures that come with understanding their rights and seeking assistance in and out of their homes. It is key to use a community-based approach by involving women, men, girls and boys in capacity-building forums and focused group discussions (FGDs).

FGDs permits community members that have been victims and survivors of GBV, to share their experiences on different forms of violence and prevention and response measures undertaken by them in the community (UNHCR, 2020).  Major topics of discussion could be safety and security risks during COVID-19 including different forms of GBV and related challenges in reporting. Strengthening community participation promotes the increase of knowledge and raises awareness on reporting. Another way to enhance prevention in the community is to print-out or use visibility materials -such as T-shirts, banners, and stickers, among others, and distribute them to guarantee continued information and knowledge of the GBV.

 

2. Strengthening services for women

Lockdowns and other physical distancing measures to curb the spread of the virus, combined with multiple ghost towns and rising insecurities within the NWSW regions, made services available to women extremely limited. For the very few available services, there exists constraints in follow-up due to untimely service delivery and limited staff. It is therefore of utmost importance to adopt best practices for establishing effective communication with community structures in order to ensure timely service delivery to survivors. Improving the access to these services might involve strengthening the use of direct phone calls, hotline numbers, emails, complaint boxes and face-to-face on emergency cases. These services can be further strengthened through the creation of GBV Referral Pathway and coordination to ensure all survivors have timely, safe, and adequate access to quality service provision.

Providing legal assistance to resolve cases should be at the forefront of available services for these vulnerable women. However, due to the COVID lockdown and the persistent civil unrest within these regions, legal assistance came to a half right, worsened by the start of the pandemic. Therefore, strategies such as creating Gender Reporting Desks at police stations to enhance referrals can be used as a way of establishing legal systems that build on the capacity of law enforcers, and that also helps to ensure that police replicate gender and trauma sensitive approaches when dealing with GBV survivors.

Another way of strengthening services for women is by enhancing the clinical management of rape which involves strategies such as providing psychosocial support, case management, and multi-sectorial response (UNHCR, 2020). This particular strategy faces a huge barrier, as socio-cultural norms in addressing sexual violence prevail within communities in the NWSW regions. Influence from traditional leaders further negatively undermines these efforts by perpetuating wrong practices. Medical referral for legal assistance can become challenging due to the impunity which perpetrators enjoy in abusing survivors of rape. The solution is to continue creating awareness on GBV response mechanisms, legal reforms, and organizing training and advocacy visits by strengthening police departments.

 

3. Empowering women through livelihood support

In order to highlight opportunities for the strengthening of GBV mainstreaming so as to influence positive change among vulnerable women, it is important to prioritize women at risk in all strategies. Social protection through this approach recognizes that forms of violence are a burden on women and girls that affect their self-esteem, health, dignity and presents main obstacles to socio-economic development for themselves and their families. Livelihood interventions such as providing support for women to acquire life skills such as tailoring, hairdressing, catering, pig and poultry farming, among others, restores women’s psychosocial wellbeing while enhancing their safety and security.

Local NGOs such as the Rising Hope For Change Foundation is taking initiatives to push this propaganda forward with the creation of self-employment opportunities through its recent donation of 200 sewing machines to internally displaced women in Limbe (P4P, 2021), resulting from the NWSW unrest. It is important for women to find spaces where they can fully interact with their fellow women especially during these dual crises. This serves as the basis for the healing process after violence.

As presented in the strategies detailed above, the fact that social protection can be used as a tool to curb GBV in the NWSW regions of Cameroon can never be overemphasized. With an increasing number of people from these regions being displaced to other towns and even to nearby refugee camps in Nigeria, there are key challenges to livelihood and socio-economic empowerment within their new environments. It is important to ensure that GBV activities are being integrated into long-term interventions, such as to continuously strengthen services for women victims of GBV by adopting best practices to enhance communication, facilitating reporting and assistance, especially given the weekly “ghost towns”, which sometimes last up to two weeks.  It is most recommendable to provide both clinical and case management support for victims and persons of concern.

Institutional mechanisms should be fully responsive to the rights and needs of these women and girls, particularly during this pandemic (AUC, 2020b). It also needed to strengthen the integration of prevention efforts and services to respond to violence against women in this region into COVID-19 response plans, including services to internally displaced victims congregating in other cities such as Douala and Yaoundé. In addition, bilateral commitment, both from the government and other stakeholders are important to step up advocacy and awareness by targeting men and boys as well as traditional and religious leaders in GBV prevention, response, and coordination efforts.

 

References