Armed conflict emerged in Cameroon, a country in Central Africa that includes both Anglophone and Francophone regions, in 2016, after teachers and lawyers held a non-violent strike to protest the imposition of French in the two English-speaking regions. The central government, based in Francophone Yaoundé, responded with a heavy hand, including arrests and violence, which fueled further unrest, including the radicalization of separatist groups. According to the United Nations, “Many schools have closed to avoid frequent attacks against education facilities. Teachers and students have been attacked, kidnapped, threatened, and killed.” Thousands of residents of Anglophone Cameroon have been killed and hundreds of thousands have been displaced. As of November 2021, observers report that the armed conflict is escalating, with atrocities carried out by government security forces and some of the separatist factions preventing humanitarian workers and teachers from doing their jobs. In 2020, the UN secretary-general designated Cameroon as a “situation of concern” because of grave violations against children that have occurred during armed conflict.

Caryn Dasah is a youth leader in Cameroon and General Coordinator of the Cameroon Women's Peace Movement. In this interview, which has been edited and condensed, she describes campaigns she has organized for peace and non-violent resolution, strategies for supporting healing and dignity for victims of violence, and the role of international actors in the movements for peace in Cameroon. She offers powerful arguments for grassroots participation: lasting solutions, she reminds us, will only come when women and girls directly affected by the armed conflict are part of the decision-making about how to resolve the crisis.


How did you become involved in peace-building work in Cameroon?

I became a peace builder as I witnessed firsthand the negative consequences that this crisis had on my people. I risked my life to volunteer in a war-torn area in 2017. We went to villages and saw how miserable people were, living in the bushes with no access to health services or electricity. Young girls did not have access to sanitary towels during menstruation, women gave birth in the bush without the attention of health professionals. On the days we visited these villages — whose inhabitants had fled as their villages were burnt down — it was like a reunion; they kept hugging people they had not seen for months. You could hear them asking each other where exactly they fled to. Then, on the second day, we were taken to the military camp for questioning. The military suspected that we were linked to the separatists; other people who came into the area were either killed or kidnapped yet we were not touched. They told us that we could be arrested. It was traumatizing. After that mission I left that area.

Seeing the negative impacts of war, I started making baby steps: educating community members on non-violence, calling for the silencing of guns on social media, organizing street protests, denouncing killings, denouncing human rights violations. My very first campaign was the lamentation campaign. Women went into the streets and were crying and calling for men to drop their guns and create avenues for peace. They were on the ground wearing sackcloth and orange scarfs — the color that symbolizes non-violence. 

It’s not like one day I decided that I wanted to be a peace builder. No one sits in their house and sees fire and turns a blind eye; you must try to stop the fire.



Who else is part of this peace building work?

In 2019, Cameroon women were invited by Africans Rising, a pan-African movement for justice and peace, to take part in a mediation and conflict resolution residency. Africans Rising was trying to build our capacity to bring women's voices to the table in government dialogues. Out of that experience, we decided to create the Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement, which is what I am leading now. 


What are some recent peace-building projects you have organized? 

Most of the time, women say, “I am representing the women's voices.” But every woman has a voice. I have my voice. I can speak for myself, and so can other women. If we want to talk about conflict resolution, we should learn from women who are living in communities where the fighters are. The fighters are their children, their husbands, their boyfriends. We should get their voices to help end this crisis. In 2018, I launched the HerPlace Campaign, which is a grassroots initiative aimed at mobilizing grassroots women in villages to form a strong network to negotiate and build peace in their communities. I am convinced that everyone in every village knows who is fighting and who is not fighting. We launched the campaign in Buea in March 2018 with one hundred women from six villages.

In 2020, I created the Healing Invisible Wounds project. This project focuses on persons who have faced trauma, such as those who lost loved ones [to violence], survivors of rape, and survivors of torture. Growing up as children, during the long rainy season holidays, our grandparents always told us stories by the fire. So [for this project], we had the idea to bring back the old storytelling at the fireplace. For some, it was their first time to tell stories of what happened to them. It was a moment of crying and joy, in gaining support and having new families. And the second day, we let the men play soccer while we had a makeup session with women to help them forget their past. We talked about starting small businesses and the role of women in building peace.


What are some of the challenges facing the peace movement?

In the northwest and southwest regions, one could be killed for going to school, walking on Mondays (which separatists declared ghost towns days), drinking a specific brand of beer, etcetera. When you talk about peace, secessionist fighters will say, “You have been bought.”

A related challenge has to do with issues of funding and the agenda of international organizations, which have the money and capacity. We have the ideas; we don't have the money. They have their own agenda they want to put their money into, since they have the connections and networks.

A third challenge stems from the influence of Cameroonians in the diaspora, some as refugees and asylum seekers, mostly in the US, who use social media to foment violence in Cameroon. They go live on Facebook, on YouTube, and call for killings. They send money to Cameroon to fund the war. They recruit boys to pick up arms. Most of them are not in Cameroon. Sometimes, they have 10,000 people watching their live shows. The government worked to ensure Facebook holds up community standards to restrict such actions. 


How can the international community support peace building?

International communities come with their own agendas. And most of the time, they don't hear from local people bearing the brunt of this crisis. International organizations can play a more supportive role by giving Cameroonian women their space. They can give Cameroonian women a platform to tell our stories — not tell those stories on our behalf. We are here, we are alive, we have the voice, we live in the region, we have the experience. 

We need platforms where women — not because of their educational background, but because of the role that they’re playing in mitigating this crisis — are able to express themselves and tell their realities. I want to reiterate the fact that every Cameroonian woman has a voice, every woman has a voice. Women are resolving conflict in their communities without being educated. That's something that we should encourage and prioritize. So I think Cameroonian women need solidarity, funding, they need support. When something happens, we want people to stand with Cameroonian women. We want that sisterhood, that solidarity from the international community. 


Where do you see this work going in the future?

I just want to meaningfully contribute to ending the crisis in my region because we need this to come to an end urgently. We need a country where the sacredness of life and the suffering of women in bringing forth life will be respected. We're tired of watching videos of children and women killed, women raped, men killed. And the more it happens, the more families are impacted and the more challenging it becomes to solve the whole issue. I think that's just my story of grassroots local activism: to bring change and try to ensure that people live better lives, enjoy their rights, and live in a community where everyone feels safe and protected. 

I want to reiterate in this article that young women are powerful. Giving them their space is not doing them a favor. Include young people in peacebuilding; they are the ones dying on the front lines. Young people deserve a place at every decision-making table, especially on decisions that would affect us. It is our right. 


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