By Violet Ikong
Regine* will never forget the nightmare she lived through on December 13, 2017, in Dadi, her village in southwest Cameroon, when over 70 soldiers ransacked the village, making illegal arrests, torturing civilians, murdering young men, and raping girls and women.
Dadi is in a region involved in what is known as the Anglophone Crisis, the Ambazonia War, or the Cameroonian Civil War. The war is between Cameroonians from French-speaking regions and those from English-speaking regions. The Anglophones have been fighting for independence from the dominant Francophone regions since late 2016. So far, over 6,000 people, mostly from the Anglophone southwest and northwest regions, have been killed, and the crisis has displaced more than 600,000 people.
As in many situations of conflict, women and girls have been primary targets of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) since the Anglophone crisis began, with Cameroonian military forces and separatist groups the major perpetrators. In 2020 alone, the United Nations recorded over 4,000 SGBV cases stemming from Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis.
“Women and girls bear the brunt of conflicts and crises because they are usually the most vulnerable groups in such situations. And because they’re vulnerable, they get captured, raped, and are sometimes forced to trade sex for food,” said Sandra Jonathan, a gender-based violence advocate from Nigeria.
Rape, a weapon of war
When the soldiers invaded Dadi, they immediately gathered the villagers and held them hostage in a small hall for three days, asserting the villagers were separatist Anglophone fighters. During those three days, the soldiers tortured and arrested the men believed to be capable of joining the fighters. Violations of the women were sexual in nature, as in many situations of conflict, where military commanders use rape as a war weapon, to create fear in women and girls, and to reward soldiers for their loyalty.
“If we wanted to ease ourselves, a soldier had to go with us into a small room in the hall, which served as a convenience, and we had to take off our clothes and [urinate] in their presence,” Regine said. A breastfeeding mother at the time, Regine was not spared. One afternoon when she wanted to urinate, a soldier followed and watched her undress. But he wanted more than to watch her urinate. “The soldier made advances at me, promising me freedom if I allowed him to sleep with me. I refused, but he persisted and went ahead to rape me, not minding that I had my baby with me,” she said.
Other soldiers came into the room where she was being raped. She thought they had come to save her, but instead “they stood there and watched him rape me while they clapped and cheered him on,” Regine said.
When the soldiers left Dadi, they took some of the village men along with them and locked them up in prison. Among these men was Regine’s husband. Other villagers fled to neighboring Nigeria to live as refugees in various settlements. Regine settled at the Adagom refugee settlement located in southern Nigeria’s Cross River State, where over 10,000 of the 86,000 Anglophone Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria live.
Like many survivors of sexual violence, Regine suffered not only at the time of her trauma but afterward. Fellow refugees living in Adagom who were present the day she was raped accused her of not doing enough to save herself from being raped. Her humiliation and woes worsened when her husband got out of prison and moved to the settlement with her.
“When he came, he was angry with me and blamed me for being a victim of rape. He asked why I allowed myself to be raped, and he eventually left me for another woman. That trauma, everything … I was just tired,” she said.
When she couldn’t deal with the trauma alone anymore, she began searching for help and ways to heal. In 2021, she heard of the Great Step Initiative (GSI), a nonprofit in the settlement whose work includes providing counseling and support to refugee women who are survivors of GBV.
“Gender-based violence is common among women like the ones in this settlement who have experienced conflict. These women battle to heal from memories of conflict and trauma caused by gender-based violence. That is why we work to support them,” said Cheng Laban, the nonprofit’s founder and a fellow refugee.
The initiative provides counseling sessions for refugee women who have experienced GBV. The sessions allow the women to talk about their GBV-related experiences, pain, and trauma – and be heard. “When we ask them questions, we don’t put words in their mouths; we allow them to express themselves, and from there, we proceed to provide counseling to them,” said Sandra Obok, the organization’s program manager.
Regine found that the counseling process helped her heal. “It took time for me to heal. It wasn’t easy, but [GBV officers] made me find another reason to hold on to life,” she said.
The team at GSI was impressed by Regine’s commitment to her journey to recovery and asked her to join the organization as a GBV officer in 2021. Regine accepted and enrolled in training. Her new leadership role exposed Regine to the experiences of other refugee women in the settlement who were subjected to various forms of GBV, but felt powerless to change their circumstances.
Before fleeing from Cameroon, most refugee women in the Adagom settlement held jobs or ran businesses. But in the camp, there is a lack of paid jobs, and poverty exposes some women to physical abuse by their partners, who accuse them of not supporting the family financially, as they had done in their home country. So, as the women struggle to heal from traumatizing experiences outside their homes, they suffer more abuse at home.
Helena* is a refugee mother of six, and is one of many women in the settlement with stories of physical abuse. She was a successful trader back in Cameroon and often helped her husband with money to meet family needs. When her family fled to Nigeria, she could not find a job, and so could no longer support the family financially. This enraged her husband and he became abusive toward her.
“I’ve been seriously beaten. I’ve been insulted in so many ways. I cried during those times, and sometimes my children would cry along with me, especially when they saw me with wounds, scars, and a swollen face after being beaten by my husband,” Helena said.
Helena kept her experiences to herself and did not seek help for fear of discrimination. “I became traumatized and felt like someone who had been rejected. The only thing I thought of was if I was going to die,” she said.
Other women in the settlement share a similar story. Emmanuella* is one of them. “My husband began hitting me in 2018 when we arrived at this settlement, and it happened mostly because I demanded money to cater to family needs. Our neighbors were witnesses but couldn’t do anything. It made me mentally unstable,” Emmanuella, a mother of seven, said.
Regine and the team at GSI provided weeks of counseling to these women, as well as others subjected to physical violence. The nonprofit also provided skills acquisition training and materials so women could run small businesses in soap production, and become financially independent. Over 100 refugee women have received this form of support since the nonprofit launched in 2019. Additionally, the women have received psychological support and free menstrual hygiene items.
Meanwhile, GSI has over 20 volunteers in the settlement who spot and report cases of GBV to them. This helps the organization reach out to victims directly and provide needed support. The organization frequently engages in advocacy and awareness exercises in Adagom and two other refugee settlements in Cross River State.
Although it has received some project funding support from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Regine said there is not enough money to allow the nonprofit to pursue legal action on behalf of women subjected to physical abuse at the settlement, and therefore the abuse continues.
But Regine is hopeful, focused on her work, and committed to helping more women find healing. And while she will never forget December 13, 2017, she has been able to move on and find purpose in life again.
* Names changed to conceal the identities of the women.