Years of fighting between separatists and the state in Cameroon have hit women hard, uprooting hundreds of thousands. The government and external partners should step up aid for the displaced. Donors should start planning now for including women activists in future peace talks.
What’s new? The conflict in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions grinds on, with 2021 proving an especially violent year. Clashes between separatists and security forces have displaced hundreds of thousands, the majority of whom are women and children. The role of women in the conflict and the harms they have experienced are under-examined.
Why does it matter? Women play active roles in the conflict. They are divided along political and geographical lines. Many support the Anglophone cause, with some fighting side by side with male insurgents, while others campaign for peace. Women and girls continue to suffer differentiated harms with too little attention directed to addressing them.
What should be done? Authorities should, with donor support, seek to better protect women from conflict-related sexual violence and do more to meet the needs of the displaced, reissuing civil papers, providing health care and offering economic relief. Government and Anglophone leaders should include women in conflict resolution and mitigation efforts.
The Anglophone conflict in Cameroon, now in its fifth year, has had a profound and often devastating impact on women living in the affected regions. Whether they are displaced, raising children on their own, struggling to earn a living or all three, Anglophone women have navigated a harsh landscape of hostility and widespread sexual violence. Some have joined the insurgency, motivated by political beliefs or anger and desperation. Others have joined activists highlighting the plight of women or pressing for peace. But the government and the separatists who oppose it have largely ignored women and their concerns. The government and donors should take urgent measures to mitigate the conflict’s impact on displaced women and children, many of whom have lost their civil papers or livelihoods. The government and separatists should also provide democratic space for women’s groups to campaign for peace without fear of reprisal. Although no peace process exists at present, donors should begin preparing now to include women activists, especially those influential in rural areas, in talks when they do get under way.
Cameroon’s Anglophone war dates to 2017, when a protest movement that sought to preserve the Anglophone legal and educational systems transformed, in the face of a government crackdown, into an armed rebellion. Women and children have suffered hugely in the resulting conflict. Hundreds of thousands of the displaced are women, and many are running households and rearing children without outside support. General strikes, lockdowns and the threat of violence have paralysed the two Anglophone regions’ economies, while most infrastructure is in disrepair. Cameroon has thus far rejected external requests to shelter the displaced, mainly because setting up camps would contradict the official narrative that life in the Anglophone regions is returning to normal. Thousands of uprooted citizens are without employment, housing, civil papers or schooling for their children, all while having to negotiate their personal safety and access to basic services every day. Both separatists and soldiers use rape as a weapon of war and coerce women and girls into exploitative relations that expose them to charges of espionage.
But women are not just victims. The Anglophone revolt drew in women almost from the start, and many play roles either in active combat or as part of the separatist militias’ support structure. Some women have taken up arms for political reasons. Others are seeking revenge for abuses they or their families have suffered at the security forces’ hands. Indeed, women’s roles in the insurgency, both as participants and as a social base, help explain its tenacity.
Cameroonian women also engage widely in peacebuilding activities. These activities are far from monolithic. Urban, high-profile women’s groups easily engage with national and international institutions, while rural grassroots activists have more sway over separatist fighters but few connections with officials in Yaoundé. More broadly, women’s groups span political and geographical divides, between activists who openly espouse the separatist cause and those who privately prefer federalism or simply peace. Although the government and separatists often disregard women’s activism or relegate activists to narrow, single-issue politics, women, both at home and abroad, have pressed with some success for relief measures such as reopening schools that separatist boycotts forced to close and extending the reach of humanitarian aid. They have also called for broader peace initiatives, like ceasefires and inclusive talks. As women’s activism has become bolder and more prominent, the government has become less tolerant of it, and activists also face reprisals by separatists in areas where they operate.
Meanwhile, efforts at dialogue between the government and the separatists have borne little fruit, and there are few indications that the two sides are ready to compromise in the near future. At present, no peace talks are under way or even planned. But when the two sides are ready to talk, it is imperative that they invite a broad array of women to the table. A peace process that ignores women’s positions would sideline a vibrant source of perspectives on the conflict, ignore key constituencies and, in all likelihood, fail to address forms of violence that particularly affect women. An inclusive peace process, on the other hand, would generate buy-in among women, who would then help build support in society at large.
In the meantime, the government should focus on taking steps to better protect women from the differentiated impact of conflict on them and their families, including by:
Affording unfettered access to the Anglophone regions for humanitarian workers so they can bring relief to those most in need.
Accelerating efforts to reissue identity documents and other important civil papers that displaced people have lost during the conflict.
Extending economic support to women affected by the violence, particularly those who have been displaced, including through gender equity in planned measures such as land allocation to displaced people.
Increasing medical and psychosocial support to sexual abuse survivors.
Intensifying efforts to prosecute perpetrators of sexual violence.
Allowing women activists to campaign for a peaceful resolution of the conflict without fear of reprisal.
In order for these measures to be effective, they will in many cases have to be met by corresponding steps by the separatists, who should:
Immediately suspend any attacks on humanitarian workers.
Take a coordinated decision to indefinitely suspend school boycotts and allow all the education centres to reopen and resume their regular activities.
Refrain from coercing women into support roles in militia camps, such as cooking and nursing.
Establish a coordinated mechanism to exclude from their ranks militiamen alleged to be responsible for violence or other abuses directed at women.
Allow women activists to freely express their political views without fear of threats or retaliation, including online.
As for donor countries, multilateral organisations and NGOs – which have been rightly pushing for comprehensive negotiations to end the conflict – they can in the meantime work to support the foregoing efforts, in particular by:
Helping repair the education system of the two Anglophone regions by rebuilding schools, recruiting teachers and facilitating displaced children’s access to learning.
Supporting economic initiatives directed at women, in particular vocational training and funding for small businesses, and pushing for women to have equal opportunities in the recovery program.
Providing funding for improved monitoring of gender-based violence in the Anglophone regions to shed light on the problem’s extent and craft an appropriate response.
Donors and other outside actors can also help prepare the ground for an inclusive peace process when the time comes by increasing support for skills training for women peacebuilders and ensuring that their assistance goes to building the capacity of rural activists as well as those in urban areas.
Taken together, these measures can help mitigate the brutal impact of Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict on women and children (particularly girls) while helping women activists play the role that is their due in laying the foundations for future peace.
The crisis in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions shows no sign of abating. It was set off by a series of demands by lawyers, teachers and students in 2016, who sought to create a two-state federation that would protect the Anglophone legal and educational systems from being subsumed by their Francophone counterparts. As protests grew, the government held talks with teachers’ unions to appease Anglophone public opinion but largely ignored underlying grievances, and the crisis became increasingly serious.
On 1 October 2017, secessionists proclaimed an independent Federal Republic of Ambazonia, as they called the North West and South West regions, the former British Southern Cameroons. Authorities in the capital Yaoundé responded with a heavy-handed crackdown on those they perceived as secessionist sympathisers, killing dozens and arresting hundreds, which in turn spurred the formation of Anglophone militias. By the end of 2017, the crisis had degenerated into armed conflict. At least 6,000 people have died since. Insecurity and lack of access to basic services mean that 2.2 million people in the Anglophone regions, or one in two inhabitants, need humanitarian assistance, according to the UN. The majority of those displaced by the crisis are women and children. Far greater pressure from external actors will likely be necessary to achieve a settlement.
Crisis Group and others have repeatedly advocated for talks that might yield a political solution to the conflict. Subsequent publications will look at how this solution might be reached. This report both provides an update on the conflict and delves into one of its under-examined dimensions, namely, the roles women have played as conflict actors and peaceful activists, and the gender-differentiated harms suffered by women and girls amid the violence. Understanding how women have shaped the conflict and uniquely suffered from it can usefully inform efforts both to mitigate Cameroon’s humanitarian crisis and to build an inclusive peace process capable of delivering a durable settlement. The report builds on previous Crisis Group reports on Cameroon’s Anglophone conflict. It is based on over 110 interviews with government officials, separatists, Anglophone civil society representatives, women leaders and activists, diplomats, humanitarian workers, academics and researchers, conducted in Douala, Yaoundé and various localities in the North West, South West, West and Littoral regions, as well as in the diaspora, between August 2020 and January 2022.