Every day, Gladys, a 33-year-old vendor in Buea, the capital of Cameroon’s Southwest region, heads to Muea market to sell vegetables, sweets and other food items.
“But only after the sun rises,” she said. “All day I worry it will be the day I am attacked by those boys [or] the military.”
Gladys’s fear and anxiety are shared by many women across Cameroon’s Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions, where an armed conflict between separatist groups and government forces has been ongoing since 2016.
Al Jazeera interviewed women across the regions, including victims, who spoke of a pervasive fear of sexual assault and violence perpetrated by armed separatists, military personnel and civilians.
“Children and women are becoming more and more targeted,” said Esther Omam, a peace advocate based in Buea. “They are becoming the soft spot for this war.”
Nkongho Christy Ayuk, a gender-based violence case manager at Reach Out, a local humanitarian organization, said after nearly five years of low-level fighting, the regions have devolved into a state of “lawlessness”.
Consequently, sexual and gender-based violence including rape, sexual assault and abduction have become commonplace, according to several local and international human rights and aid groups.
And the situation is worsening. Between January and March of this year, there have been nearly 500 cases of rape and sexual or physical assault documented in the two regions, and more than 500 other cases of gender-based violence including forced marriage, denial of economic resources and emotional abuse, data provided by the United Nations showed.
Last year, between February and December 2020, the UN documented 4,300 incidents of sexual and gender-based violence across the two regions. Almost half of those were cases of sexual or physical assault or rape, and in more than 30 percent of those cases, the victims were children.
In 2019, the UN had documented only 1,065 cases, 289 of which involved sexual assault or rape.
“Girls and women will just be walking around; I have witnessed it, my daughter has witnessed it, you just see the uniformed people and they have their guns with them, and they are calling you. You are helpless, you are scared, because they can just pull the trigger,” said a local human rights advocate in Bamenda, the capital of the Northwest region, who asked not to be identified.
“So you approach them to hear what they are saying and it’s about ‘Oh you are beautiful,’ or they create a motive asking, ‘Where is your ID card?’ or something that will put you with them and they corner you – they do what they want to do with you.”
The Anglophone conflict began in late 2016 when the government used lethal force to put down peaceful rallies by lawyers and teachers protesting against perceived marginalisation by the country’s majority Francophone government. In response, dozens of armed separatist groups formed to fight for an independent nation they called Ambazonia. The UN and the International Crisis Group estimate that more than 700,000 people have been displaced by violence, and at least 4,000 civilian casualties have been recorded.
Both sides have been accused of committing atrocities against civilians. Government security forces have razed hundreds of houses and markets across the two regions while separatist groups have carried out abductions and attacked schools and police stations, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the UN.
In late February, HRW reported that at least 20 women in Ebam village in the Southwest region were raped by Cameroonian security forces in an attack on March 1, 2020.
In a statement last month, Cameroon’s Ministry of Defence acknowledged that the military had carried out operations in Ebam and detained 34 residents for questioning. The statement discredited HRW stating that “this organization has, to the detriment of its credibility, never reported objectively on events in the North-West and South-West Regions, but always opting [sic] at the slightest opportunity for a systematic relentlessness and demonization of the Cameroon’s Defence Force,” but it did not explicitly deny the allegations of rape and human rights abuses.
Cyrille Serge Atonfack, the head of the ministry’s communication division, declined to provide further comment to Al Jazeera about this incident or any other allegations that government security forces have carried out sexual or gender-based violence.
Armed separatists have also increasingly targeted girls and women, according to rights groups, while gender-based violence perpetrated by civilians has also spiked in the past year, perhaps due in part to national lockdowns imposed by the government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic; similar pandemic restrictions have caused an increase in gender-based violence worldwide.
Nancy Bolima, executive director of the Bamenda-based Health Development Consultancy Services NGO, said in the face of growing economic hardship due to the prolonged crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic, struggling girls and women have been looking “for any kind of business”.
“Just anything that they can do in order to have money or have food. And because of that, they have been violated. Even women who are elderly,” said Bolima.
Meanwhile, many traditional rulers who would normally enforce law and order in their villages have fled to major cities after being targeted by separatists, leaving a gaping security gap behind.
A representative from Cameroon’s Ministry of Women Empowerment and the Family (MINPROFF) also cited rising poverty, homelessness, and widespread school and business closures as factors contributing to an increase in sexual and gender-based violence in the conflict-hit areas in recent years.
“The women suffer more when it happens like that because all the anger that the men have is geared towards the women,” the representative said.
“And we also have this issue of rape. Because so many houses have been burned down, many young girls are homeless and … are looking for means to earn a living. And so they have this issue of the separatists – some violating them, sleeping with them and even impregnating them,” the representative added. “And then there is this other issue where you also have the military who come and settle in a particular area because of the crisis to guard whatever thing that is happening in that area. They fall into the hands of these young men who sleep with them randomly and make them pregnant.”
The MINPROFF representative declined to comment further on specific allegations of sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by government security forces and separatists.
Fombat Forbah Dieudonne, a United Kingdom-based spokesperson for the Ambazonia Restoration Forces, one of the major separatist groups, said any allegations that separatists were perpetrating sexual or gender-based violence against civilians are “false”.
Before 2018, Reach Out documented about one case of gender-based violence per month across the Southwest region, but since 2019, they have documented about 3 cases per week.
Any statistics on the number of sexual and gender-based violent crimes are likely a severe underestimation of the true burden. Crimes go unreported because of fear and social stigma and a lack of access to health facilities in which to seek care. Some 40 percent of healthcare facilities in the Southwest region are not functioning, according to UNICEF, and many of those that are, do not have protocols or infrastructure to treat victims of sexual and gender-based violence.
“People are scared to report because they are not sure they will be protected. So when someone reports an issue, it is more or less because they need to seek medical help,” Bolima said.
“Myself, I am living scared,” she added. “Somebody is just looking at you and you are just so scared, you don’t know what is going to happen next. You don’t want to be by a stretch of road by yourself because you are afraid that somebody can just come up and just [kidnap] you and those kinds of things.”
In Ekona, a hard-hit village in the Southwest region, the community has banned girls and women from travelling to their farms alone to prevent further attacks in the area, according to a local resident and Reach Out.
“Life has just become something else. The frustrations that people are having, they are letting it out on others, maybe through rape, through gender-based violence. And those who are most affected are the girls and the women,” Bolima said.
For Gladys, the Buea vendor, freeing women from the constant fear of being attacked will take a long time.
“No matter what is the resolution of this crisis, how it ends, women in this place will be scarred,” she said. “Every day we are living in fear.”