Omam Esther on Women in Peace Building

Women have perfected the art of challenging societal norms, a lot of times it looks like women are always fighting for/advocating for something. Since #defyhatenow has been in Cameroon we have met women who have been working towards a better Cameroon.

This is the first article in our “Women4Peace” series. We will be celebrating women we have been privileged to work with talking about their daily lives and how they impact their communities while advocating for peace through their work.

What should we call you?

My name is Njomo epse Omam Esther, but I prefer to go by OMAM ESTHER.

How do you remember your childhood? Are there any parallels between growing up then and now?

I was born in Cameroon in one of the most impoverished areas of Douala. My childhood was not rosy, my family was very poor, and we struggled even to have a meal a day, I never thought about dying from lack of food, but now when I look back, it might have been a possibility, I just couldn’t grasp it as a child.

I would trek several kilometres to fetch water and walk what feels like a thousand more to help large traders process their goods at odd hours of the night.  In turn, I would get some of the bad discarded vegetables and spices to sell in the market. I would then take the money to my mother to ensure we have something to put on my family’s table. I attended school despite all this. I don’t even know how that was possible, but I would walk many kilometres to get an education.

Coupled with the long distances I had to endure, I faced numerous harassment and assaults from boys and men alike because I came from the lowest social and economic status and the mere fact that I was a girl.

How did you get into this line of work? Is your passion your career?

Growing up, I never had a voice to advocate for anyone, even as I observed the inequalities suffered by women and girls like me. As I grew up and got opportunities, I knew I wanted to use my voice to work with the voiceless, the marginalised and most especially those in remote areas of the South West Region of Cameroon. This has inspired and informed my vision to get to doing what I am doing today.

Now that you ask yes, my passion is my career. Like I had mentioned before, I always wanted to stand in the gap for the many who were defenceless when faced with violence or in places where the government’s policies had little or no impact. I am leading today, advocating for the underprivileged ones because I am constantly reminded of my past, my childhood. It breaks my heart that it is still happening, but every little effort will make a change.

What has been the highlight of your career? A moment you cherish to date?

From a development agency to a humanitarian and a peace crusader/mediator, it has been very rocky, but there are many moments I cherish in my quest to EMPOWER. One of them is stabilising the conflict Bakassi through our empowerment caravan, which educated women on their rights and facilitated the creation of the Bakassi and Women Task Force (BAWOPETAF). The women in this task force were later brought to Buea in an exchange visit to improve their knowledge on good citizenship, economic empowerment and the power of education and advocacy. All these cumulated to 100 of the BAWOPETAF members been invited to fully participate in the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Cameroon, thus making their voices heard not only to the head of state but to the international community present during the celebration, and this led to the improvement of programs in Bakassi and more focus paid to that area. Today we have some women as mayors, senators and former MPs, councilors, hence my pride.

The other one is when I convinced women to join a voice space created to contribute to ending the ongoing conflict in our two restive regions, the Northwest and Southwest, the day they yielded to the call and came out at Bongo square to express their pains and sorrow while calling on both parties to STOP. I cherish the day I convinced the women that we could do it; we went to Muea to support IDPs despite the guns’ thundering. We asked both parties to respect our outing because we were there to help our people who had been rendered homeless and were helpless. That day the guns were silenced, and we, “women peacebuilders”, carried out our activities and returned home unharmed. I went to the United Nations Security Council to represent all the voices that needed to be heard within the context of this crisis in Cameroon.

I cherish the advocacy campaign I led in the USA to meet with five Non-state Armed Groups leaders to convince them to lift the ban on schools so that our children could go to school unarmed. I can also not forget our efforts as 28 women, which led to the pre consultations with the Prime Minister in preparation for the Major National Dialogue.  And last but not least, the day I was learned, I was awarded a PEACE PRIZE by the PCC Peace Office and the coalition of peacebuilders in Cameroon. I never expected it; I was just doing what I love doing, little did I know someone was watching.

Tell me a little about Reach Out? 

In Cameroon, meagre income, marginalisation, discrimination, gender inequalities and poor governance are the major causes of; poor health, high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, high maternal and infant mortality, poor living standards, illiteracy and juvenile delinquency, including human rights violations. Reach Out is a women-and-youth-centred NGO founded 22 years ago to help and support underprivileged women and youth in the South-West, North-West and Littoral Regions of Cameroon.

We mainly focus on; strengthening health systems and providing remote health services, ensure protection for human rights in the communities, most especially for groups-at-risk and fighting extreme poverty. Since the North West and South West crisis started, we shifted our focus from development to humanitarian response as a conflict-ridden society is a sick society. So far, hundreds of thousands have benefitted from our humanitarian actions.

What challenges have you faced as Reach Out?

There are many, but I will focus on the most pressing currently. While the crisis hasn’t reduced in intensity (there has been a higher pace of fatalities reported in 2020 than in 2019, according to the Armed Conflict Location Event Data Project), donors have lost interest in the situation. Life-saving activities are stopping, scaling-down, or suspended. All the Humanitarian clusters are reporting a funding reduction of above 60% in 2020. The response was always insufficient, but it has reduced a lot. Sometimes it feels like no one knows what is happening in Cameroon. With the Covid-19 crisis, it has been getting worse.

I don’t think we are safe doing work as humanitarians. More and more humanitarians are being targeted; five have been killed since December 2019. And as Reach Out, we lack autonomy in how we implement our projects. We do not have consistent funding and enough leeway to decide how to spend towards the most pressing issues; we can only execute projects for donors who already have pre-designed projects, activities, and sometimes locations.

What impact do you feel Reach Out has had in the communities you have worked with? 

The communities we have been working with have adopted positive and healthy habits as per our programs, leading to improved quality of life. We have increased support towards orphans and vulnerable children to have increased access to essential needs (medical, nutritional, educational, and psychological). Household incomes have been improved by establishing micro-projects, promoting sustainable agriculture and micro-credit operations, and having made thousands of beneficiaries self-reliant in their communities.

The capacities of underprivileged groups, civil society organisations, councils and other development stakeholders have been strengthened to ensure effective participation in development within their communities for improved livelihoods. Communities have been adopting gender-sensitive approaches, peaceful cohabitation, and increased participation of women and youth in the decision-making process. IDPs and returnees, including host communities, have been benefitting from our humanitarian assistance. As a result of our support and advocacy meetings, many have gone back to their initial point of departure, and many are preparing to go back.

These seem like a mouthful, but since we started working as Reach Out, there has been a tangible change in the community.

What personal challenges have you faced while doing what you do?

I have been, and I am still subject to threats in all its forms. Our vehicle was burnt, and my personal car was taken to the bush and shattered; since then, it has had myriad problems. Despite all this, the organisation has helped increase my visibility credibility, and I am a voice in my society.

Is there a woman leader you look up to?

Yes, Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who once said, “If you want something said, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.” I have worked with women and girls a lot, and I can tell you from experience they get things done wherever they are. Be it at work, at home, at school or in their communities.

Having achieved as much as you have because you navigate the world as a woman, would you have achieved more or less otherwise?

I don’t view my achievements from the lens of my gender. I am a woman, so I have never thought about if things would have been easier was I a man. My work has led me to opportunities, and this has given me recognition beyond Cameroon. My determination to succeed at all cost, the firm will stand between the gaps of those without has taken me to places and given me victories translated into impact to beneficiaries.

It gives me the joy to serve while learning by doing, not because I am a woman. Albeit I am very proud to have been born a woman.

What do you hope the future holds? And what can you tell young women as they work towards their goals?

I do not know what the future holds for me, but I desire to see our diversity translated into unity freed of hostilities and any form of violence. I hope we keep impacting lives in hundreds of thousands as we have been doing. I urge young women across the world to stay focused, be honest in all their dealings and keep an eye on their goals, and they will impact their world. #InternatinalWomensDay #ChooseToChallenge #Women4Peace #defyhatenow

Words by Esther Omam edited by Kendi Gikunda