Women peacebuilders in indigenous communities in the Northwest and Southwest regions of Cameroon are leading local initiatives to promote the Women, Peace and Security agenda and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1325. These peace initiatives have been the backbone for the engagement of local stakeholders like youth groups, rural community-based organisations (CBOs) and traditional authorities.
This article unfolds the journey of Esther Omam, who leads local initiatives, advocates for and supports indigenous women and youth peacebuilders, as well as influencing national stakeholders to engage women in peace processes.
As Executive Director of Reach Out NGO, Esther has been a leader in actions to promote development, building peace and providing humanitarian assistance in Cameroon since 2000. Her commitment to the promotion and protection of women’s and children’s rights took her to the Bakassi Peninsula in 2011, where she advocated for the Bakassi women’s participation in the celebration of the 50th Anniversary of the Re-unification of Cameroon before the Head of State and diplomatic missions in February 2014. She became the Peace and Human Rights Champion of Bakassi, and earned an award from the Canadian High Commission in recognition of her valuable contribution to the protection and promotion of human rights.
But her experience of peacebuilding began much earlier, and at a more domestic level: ‘My journey in peacebuilding started when I was a young girl and our parents lived below the poverty line, so we struggled daily to support our parents to have food on the table. I became a natural mediator at home. Tensions in communities and other aspects of inequality which I was always trying to mediate informed my active participation in peacebuilding.’
Esther has focused her activities on the empowerment of rural women in conflict-affected communities. She considers rural women to be the most affected by the ongoing armed conflict in the Northwest and Southwest Regions of Cameroon, and sees their engagement in peacebuilding as a vital act of inclusion: getting everyone involved in the peacebuilding process.
‘It has always been about the rural women because they are completely cut off from realities at the regional and national level. We try to go back to the grassroots, empowering them so they can be heard. Nothing for them without them, we cannot be talking peacebuilding and leave the most affected behind. Let’s all get involved,’ she says.
Making space for women peacebuilders
Since 2016, Esther has been leading peaceful activism to resolve the Anglophone crisis. The Anglophone crisis which started in 2016 as a peaceful demonstration by teachers and lawyers escalated into an armed conflict, leading to disruption of education, massive killings, arbitrary arrests, abduction for ransoms, destruction of state and individual properties, displacement and other human rights violations. The government convened a Major National Dialogue in 2019 to seek solutions to the conflict, but instances of human rights violations remain prevalent as a result of the ongoing conflict.
Esther works with local communities on humanitarian relief, peace and social cohesion and her organisation has served over 500,000 displaced persons and other persons in need since the beginning of the Crisis.
She has created women’s peacebuilding coalition platforms and led a delegation of 28 women to the pre-dialogue session in 2019 with the Prime Minster, which orchestrated the participation of women in the 2019 Major National Dialogue in Cameroon.
She also testified at the UNSC in May 2019 on the realities of the humanitarian crisis in Cameroon and was a member of the steering committee for the first-ever national women’s convention for peace in Cameroon.
‘I created the first space for women’s voices: the Southwest Northwest Women’s Taskforce (SNWOT), leading the first organisation to carry out humanitarian response in the Northwest and Southwest during the beginning of the crisis. [We were] promoting social cohesion, training women on managing peace hubs, and supporting the economic empowerment and peaceful integration of displaced women in host communities,’ Esther explains.
The Southwest Northwest Women’s Taskforce (SNWOT) owes its origin to Ether. Her efforts also led to the creation and mentoring of a Community Women Peace Mediators Network (COWOPEM). Esther is the winner of over 10 national and international peacebuilding awards and was recently shortlisted among the ten finalists for the Global Pluralism Award.
Despite local actions to promote peace, there are many obstacles to overcome.: ‘Challenges abound; issues of safety and security, remoteness of communities, issues of access, and difficulties in getting funding.’
She highlights that there is a highly polarised and competitive environment in civil society, with women peacebuilders facing backlash, limited opportunities and a lack of recognition.
These divisions in civil society, she says, undermine the work all are trying to do: ‘My recommendation for sustainable local peacebuilding is for the various actors to understand that there is nothing as impactful as having a unified front, concerted efforts and a common voice. There is a need for us to strengthen the grassroots. Take peace initiatives to the roots. Empower, strengthen community structures, this way we will have good connection in peacebuilding between grassroots, regional and national levels.’
Empowering others: a legacy of peace
Esther’s efforts in promoting the participation of women in peacebuilding by training grassroots peacebuilding advocates and community builders have been very successful. Some are scholars, administrators, others have created organisations, and some are consultants. We are proud of the impact which we have been able to create,’ she says.
Baiye Frida is the founder of peacebuilding programming at Blessing Associates for Women and Children (BAWAC) Cameroon. She says that Esther has coached and mentored her since 2017.
‘Given her experience of peacebuilding in Bakassi peninsular, I was inspired. […] Even in tension, she sings and dances and creates a natural environment of peace. I learnt from her and that is what I have been practicing for more than 5 years today.’
Baiye adds that Esther ‘created a home for women peacebuilders, a legacy where we go for trauma healing and capacity-building called “Esther’s Brave Space”. We worked together in SNOWT. She took a risk to go to the USA to talk with non-state armed groups for our children to go back to school. We went for lamentation campaigns together. I am doing a PHD now focusing on peacebuilding because Mme Esther encouraged me to take a PHD. I truly appreciate her for lighting up the path for us.’
Frida to the left and Esther to the right at a visit to Esther's Brave Space.
26-year-old Nembo Ekong is the leader of the Rural and Urban Grassroot Business Women Association, based in the Northwest Region of Cameroon.
‘In 2018, witnessing her commitment to peace ignited a sense of solidarity within me and for peace to be restored in our country. Ma Omam’s mentorship has been instrumental in my personal growth, equipping me with skills to engage in peaceful dialogue. Through her, I have secured funding for various humanitarian endeavors to support internally displaced persons.’
Zainab Abdulahi is an indigenous Muslim woman and peace mediator. Her experience in working with Esther Omam helped build her career, and today, she is the leader of Djara Reube Mbororo Development Association (DAREM), which works to promote the rights of indigenous and vulnerable groups.
She says, ‘I started working with Esther Omam since 2014 when I was in Tole as a member of the Charity Sisters meeting group. She trained us on the basics of book keeping, gave us loans to run our business. Our group was later empowered into a cooperative and ran a big poultry farm. I became interested working within the non-profit sector. I was trained by Reach Out NGO as gender activist working with indigenous women and girls; and later became a peace builder. I can handle conflict between the farmers and grazers in the community.’
The stories of these women highlight the impact that the leadership of women like Esther can have in building sustainable peace – not just by contributing to conflict resolution, but by empowering others to become peacebuilding leaders themselves and transform their communities.