Cameroon: Who Are the Women Working for Change and Peace in Cameroon?

30 November 2023

Marthe Wandou, Esther Omam and Sally Mboumien are activists and affiliates of 1st National Women's Convention for Peace in Cameroon. The body representing 77 organizations has been awarded the 2023 German Africa Prize.

Content warning: Disturbing details follow below.

In the village of Makolo, in the far north of Cameroon, pupils are streaming into the classrooms. Lawyer and women's rights activist Marthe Wandou has come to talk to them.

"My dream is for every girl and boy to have the opportunity to go to school to the level they want," she says.

Wandou is an affilitate of 1st National Women's Convention for Peace in Cameroon, the 2023 recipient of the German Africa Prize. The grouping of 77 organizations campaigns for change and an end to the crisis in Cameroon.

Wandou and her counterparts in 1st National Women's Convention for Peace in Cameroon are calling for an immediate ceasefire in Cameroon where separatist groups fighting for independence of the English-speaking territories since 2017.

The conflict has claimed more than 6,000 lives and displaced over 712,000 people.

Fighting gender prejudices

Wandou is particularly concerned about the schoolgirls in Cameroon.

In Makolo, not all parents allow their daughters to go to school.

Child marriage is a major problem. According to UNICEF, more than 30% of girls in Cameroon are married before they turn 18.

Wandou tries to persuade girls and young women to go back to school or learn a trade. But first, she has to win over their parents.

"For cultural reasons, people say that a girl who goes to school can't be a good wife," says Wandou. "She won't find anyone to marry her, she'll just get pregnant. I feel bad because these prejudices still exist 40 years later. It's terrible and that's why we are sensitizing the families."

Supporting women targeted by militants

Girls and women in Cameroon are often attacked, kidnapped, enslaved or displaced by Boko Haram terrorists.

In 2016, Aisha and her entire family were abducted by Boko Haram and she was forced to marry one of its fighters.

"Women are beaten for no reason and constantly raped," Aisha, who is now 21, told DW.

"Some marry to have at least a minimum of protection, otherwise there is nothing resembling a marriage in the true sense of the word. All Boko Haram fighters have the right to have sex with any woman in the camp. Women are raped to the point where they can no longer walk. If their husband dies and they are not ready to marry another man within 24 hours, they are beheaded immediately."

Aisha managed to escape from the Boko Haram camp with her baby. Marthe Wandou arranged psychosocial and financial support for the young mother who now runs her own business.

"It is important that we leave difficult experiences behind us and gain hope and courage to take control of our lives again," the activist says.

Providing crisis medical care

In the fishing village of Debundscha, in the southwest of Cameroon, Esther Omam has set up a day clinic.

Her NGO, Reach Out Cameroon, offers advice and free medication to thousands of patients weekly. It is part of 1st National Women's Convention for Peace in Cameroon.

Health centers in Debundscha were destroyed in fighting between separatists and the army.

"The supply of medicines for people living with HIV and AIDS has completely collapsed," says Omam. "People cannot easily visit a health center without fear of being targeted."

Reach Out Cameroon was one of the first organizations to offer help to victims of flooding in March 2023. Omam's involvement in humanitarian aid spans more than 20 years.

"The women talk to me about the need for access to water, and safe education. I have suffered from the same things. That's why it's satisfying for me to know that we are touching and changing lives."

Omam is active in helping women to set up small businesses and says she wants to break cycles of poverty and oppression.

Promoting reproductive health rights

In the town of Bamenda, in northwestern Cameroon, the services of Sally Mboumien her all-woman team are in high demand.

Common Action for Gender Development offers reproductive health counseling and helps survivors of sexual violence. It is part of 1st National Women's Convention for Peace in Cameroon.

Mboumien regularly holds talks for girls in the region where she herself grew up and understands the challenges.

"They don't even have a health service to help them," she says.

"The women feel that they are being cheated economically, that they are being cheated of their well-being, that they have no bodily autonomy and that they have no leadership role. They are victims of many forms of abuse and violence."

Inpiring younger women

Since 2015, Mboumien has been working to train young women to become active in their communities.

"Nowadays you hardly ever find girls in leadership positions, says Dorin Nkwai, a Bamenda-based youth activist.

"Even if someone applies, they simply say: 'No, we can't hire a girl'. And why? Because she has to go on maternity leave soon because she's getting married. It should be made sure that there is a balanced representation: fifty-fifty men and women."

Mboumien is inspired by the young women like Nkwai who look up to her and believes that having women in leadership roles could help to bring peace to Cameroon.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen

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