In the winter of 2020, the New Humanitarian reported that nearly 900,000 Cameroonians had been made homeless by the vicious conflict between the Yaoundé government and pro-separatist forces. Tensions had boiled over in 2016 and 2017 when the national government quelled independence protests in anglophone strongholds with harsh repression. Seized by intransigence, the majority francophone national government pursued resolution by force. In the rural Southwest and Northwest regions where turmoil prevails, a number of armed militias mobilized demanding complete independence for the country’s anglophone communities. This is widely known as Cameroon’s “Anglophone Crisis.”
Caught in the fog of war, there are those who reject violence in the name of politics. Among them is Caryn Oyo Dasah, who pushes not only for peace, but for the rights and recognition of women and girls. Her approach is twofold.
First, Dasah fights for the basic rights that women seek to live with dignity––rights to liberty, to life, and to healthcare are cogent examples. This includes efforts as practical as the distribution of basic health services and hygiene supplies like sanitary pads. The recipients of her aid are often displaced women living “in the bush.” Many of these women lead precarious lives, cut off from medical facilities or even rudimentary shelter. Some are obliged to give birth as refugees, outdoors, without the help of medical personnel.
Many of the threats to women’s rights that Dasah confronts are profoundly rooted in society and require more dynamic responses. This is where the organizing power of Dasah’s associations, Hope Advocates for Africa and Her Place Project, become indispensable. Drawing on grassroots support, Dasah’s organizations take aim at sexual and Gender-Based Violence (GBV). A horrifying symptom of war and patriarchal culture, GBV has plagued the Cameroonian civil conflict manifesting in cases of rape, sexual assault, and forced prostitution.
Fortunately, Dasah is an experienced GBV caseworker and well qualified to oversee the practice of psycho-social aid and issue referrals. However, Dasah’s efforts have surpassed the ad hoc distribution of emergency services–public activism has become central to her struggle with the normalization of sexual violence and the stigmatization of its survivors. To this end, Dasah appears often on local radio broadcasts, in the press, and at community meetings to speak openly on the theme and to fight for its acknowledgment.
In 2018, Dasah and women from the Northwest and Southwest regions organized a “lamentation campaign” which gathered hundreds of other women peace advocates in the streets of two anglophone regions to condemn ongoing crisis and the spike of Gender-Based Violence.
The second prong of Dasah’s approach aims to transcend pure humanitarian work in training and organizing young women and grassroot women as peacebuilders. Given little international support or financing, Dasah has been exceptionally successful in convening motivated women and bringing them into important discussions on conflict resolution. Her Place Project has mobilized over 500 women through conferences and workshops (with the help of social media), providing them with basic training in mediation and negotiation. In late 2019, Dasah succeeded in leading a delegation of the Cameroon women’s peace movement to a pre-consultation for the government-sponsored National Dialogue peace talks. These cases of capacity-building are particularly important given the utter lack of access to information and education present in the communities with which Dasah works.
Dasah is a practicing Christian, inspired by the Bible’s messages of solidarity. Those close to her say that she is inspired by verses like Matthew 5:9: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they should be called the children of God.” She draws influence, too, from the Bible’s eminent women, such as Esther, who committed to a hunger strike in a call for peace among her compatriots. Dasah allows such values to be a driving force behind her work, in which peace is paramount, and the potential of undervalued women is given priority.
Organizers with the dual humility and perseverance of Dasah are not easy to come by, and yet their roles in deadlocked conflicts are of immeasurable importance. In the absence of significant funding, Dasah persists as an exemplar of the causes for peace and feminism.
At 28, Dasah was recently elected as the General Coordinator of the Cameroon women’s peace movement, which is a constellation of women-led civil society organizations, Activists and leaders from all ten regions of Cameroon come together with a common objective: to ensure Cameroonian women meaningfully contribute in the peace process in their home country.
In Dasah’s own words, she shares:
“In an era where the prevalence of hate surpasses Love, as Christians, we are called not only to preach about Love, but practice it as a way of life for love comes easier to our hearts and hate is a tool to bring more trouble into the world. This is the moment for mankind to be our neighbor’s keeper.”
Tanenbaum thanks the youth focal points at UN Women for nominating Caryn Oyo Dasah.