'Worse than death': Surviving sexual violence in Cameroon's anglophone crisis

By Ngala Killian Chimtom in Yaounde - RFI
Cameroon 'Worse than death': Surviving sexual violence in Cameroon's anglophone crisis

Sexual and gender-based violence has been pervasive in Cameroon's Northwest and Southwest regions since separatist fighters launched their armed rebellion against government forces six years ago, demanding independence for the country's English-speaking minority. RFI spoke to survivors still living with the fallout.

Sandra* finds it difficult to talk about what she suffered at the hands of Cameroonian soldiers.

At 16 years old, she was stopped at a police checkpoint and asked for her national identity card, which isn't issued until age 18. After failing to produce one, the soldiers abducted Sandra and took her to a forest far from her neighbourhood.

“They raped me brutally to the extent that I could not even feel my own body. They turned me into a playing ground and treated me like dirt,” Sandra says. “What they did to me is worse than death.”

Clarisse* was also raped, but by suspected separatist fighters. An armed group stormed her neighbourhood in Kumbo in Cameroon's Northwest region. A loud noise outside woke her up before four men entered her home.

“They raped me in turns. It was so painful,” Clarisse tells RFI.

Now the mother of twins, she says: “I don't know their father, and it's very unlikely I will ever know him because they were all masked. But these children are my consolation. I have learned to look at them with love.”

Weapon of war

According to the International Crisis Group, the conflict in Cameroon's anglophone regions has killed over 6,000 people and displaced around 765,000.

Between February and December 2020, the United Nations documented over 4,300 cases of sexual and gender-based violence in the two regions. Almost half of cases involved sexual or physical assault or rape, while children were victims in around 30 percent of cases.

One reported incident included the rape of 20 women by government soldiers in Ebam in the Southwest region in March 2020. The following year, over 500 cases of rape were documented in both regions.

“These women have been raped. These women have seen their children and husbands dying before them mercilessly,” Esther Omam, executive director of the humanitarian NGO Reach Out Cameroon, told RFI. “Some of them have been maimed. Some have been killed in an inhumane manner, and some have had to pay the price of kidnapping.”

French NGO We Are Not Weapons of War, which documents cases of violence and supports survivors to seek justice, said in a statement to RFI that sexual violence is used in conflicts “to instill fear among populations, disrupt family units and social cohesion, dismantle communities, and sometimes even eradicate the ethnic identity of a specific group of people”.

As a “weapon of war”, the organisation said, sexual violence may serve to transmit diseases and enforce sexual slavery, unwanted pregnancy and public humiliation.

Women demand peace

After the Cameroonian government rejected international attempts at peace talks in 2019 and 2023, sexual and gender-based violence in the country's conflict areas continues.

“Women's bodies should never be used as weapons of war because they never begin wars,” Omam says. “What the women want is to live peacefully and go on carrying out their activities daily in a peaceful manner.”

Alongside outside efforts to protect them, women in Cameroon are leading their own campaigns against violence.

In July 2021, over 1,000 women gathered in Cameroon's capital Yaoundé for the first ever National Women's Convention for Peace.

Yvonne Muma Bih, president of the Cameroon Women's Peace Movement and convenor of the convention, says that when it comes to building peace, women have “the credibility, trust and influence earned from years of work at the community level”.

Bih says: “Women are capable of picking up the pieces during a crisis and use it as leverage during peace-building processes when official responses seem inadequate or slow.”

*Names have been changed to protect interviewees. 

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