Young girls should never be forced to have sex to get through a security checkpoint. Female activists or rebels should not be relegated to side discussions because of their gender. And women should be able to advocate for peace without fear of reprisals. Yet in Cameroon’s conflict between English-speaking separatists and the government, this is the reality for many women and girls.
Coming to grips with this reality is critical to move beyond the simplistic view that it’s only men who play an active role in the conflict. Women are involved as peace or political activists. Others have joined separatist militias or are key community influencers. But whatever side of the divide they are on, anglophone women in Cameroon have one thing in common: the government and separatists have largely ignored their concerns.
This is a mistake.
Ignoring women’s views means overlooking key constituencies and new perspectives on the conflict. Despite the deeply patriarchal nature of Cameroon’s society, some women command considerable influence, especially at grassroots level and within families. Further, the different harms suffered by women require special attention from the government, separatists and international partners.
The crisis in Cameroon’s two English-speaking regions began in 2017 when peaceful protests aimed at preserving their distinct legal and educational systems degenerated into armed rebellion. The conflict has killed about 6,000 people and displaced more than half a million. Military operations in the regions have failed to subdue the separatists, who increasingly use improvised explosive devices and military-grade weaponry.
Women and girls make up most of the displaced. Most have to fend for themselves, forced to negotiate access to basic services, housing and employment. Sexual abuse by the warring parties is rampant, with some using rape to punish women they see as supporting their opponents.
But women are not just victims, and understanding their roles in the insurgency helps explain its tenacity. Maternal validation carries significant cultural weight in the English-speaking regions, and men who joined militias were often encouraged to do so by women. Women engage in combat, gather intelligence, nurse the injured or cook. Some joined the separatists for political reasons; others are seeking revenge for abuses by security forces or are coerced.
Women are also active as peacemakers. Paradoxically, the patriarchal perception that women are naturally inclined to peace initially allowed women to organise undisturbed. But as their prominence grew, women’s groups successfully pressed for relief measures and the government and separatists became more intolerant of their activism. Despite the space they have managed to carve out for themselves, female activists largely remain excluded from the political debate or see their concerns relegated to the margins.
It is time the government and separatists stop overlooking the role of women in the war. With the help of international partners, they should protect women from sexual violence, primarily by ending impunity for those responsible. The health ministry should also offer medical and psychological treatment to rape survivors.
The government should also step up efforts to help the displaced by providing economic support and reissuing identity documents, as without them displaced women cannot get jobs, open a bank account, start a formal business or marry, and are harassed at security checkpoints.
Although there is no peace process at present, women will need to be included in negotiations when the sides are ready to talk: their buy-in is critical to building sustainable peace. Women not only provide useful perspectives on the conflict, they can also serve as advocates for a political settlement.
This is not wishful thinking. We have both worked for peace in Liberia and have seen first-hand how women’s empowerment can move a country toward reconciliation. In Cameroon, preparations for women’s involvement in a peace process should start now.
• Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is a Nobel peace prize laureate, former president of Liberia and a member of the International Crisis Group’s board of trustees. Comfort Ero is the president and chief executive of the International Crisis Group.