Cameroonian women and youth are on the forefront in the campaign to combat the spread of COVID-19 within the country. Women in Cameroon make up the about 70% of women in the world who perform most of the care and unpaid work and understand what it means for underprivileged people to be in need. These women who are mothers, wives, health care workers, civil society activists, human rights defenders and above all peace builders are leading the fight against this deadly global pandemic. COVID-19 has “added salt to injury” by impeding the economic, social, health, political lifestyle of these women, already shattered to the core by ongoing armed conflicts within the country. Domestic violence cases have soared, health services are overwhelmed making it impossible for these women to enforce their already wanting sexual and reproductive health rights. They have no choice but to take their destinies in their hands as they have always done.
Cameroon confirmed it first COVID-19 case on March 6, 2020, and the government through the Prime Minister and head of government announced preventive measures on March 18, 2020. These preventive measures included the closure of schools, social and physical distancing, cancellation of all official events, closure of bar and restaurants at 6:00 pm, restriction of social and public gatherings, regulation of customers flows in markets and shopping centres. The measures also included the limitation of urban and interurban transportation to only extreme cases, warned against overloading by public transport drivers, called on public administration to give preference to electronic an digital communication to all meetings likely to bring together more than 10 people, suspending all missions abroad by public and para-public agents; and endorsed the observance of strict hygienic measures recommended by the W.H.O. including the regular washing of hands with soap and clean water, avoiding handshaking or hugging, and emphasising the need to cover the mouth while coughing or sneezing.
Hence, while government was still fiddling and figuring out what to do, women were already taking strategic measures and paving the way forward to combat and survive coronavirus in Cameroon.
The above measures which, according to government though difficult are necessary to ensure the protection of each and every one and to limit the spread of the deadly corona virus pandemic, sent a red signal to the women. The “1510” COVID-19 alert number was communicated to the public in case of need and government called on the public not to panic but to show a great sense of responsibility, discipline and solidarity view of the global nature of the pandemic. However, women preferred to be proactive guided by their intuition and nurturing instinct. Hence, they embarked on “panic shopping” to equip their houses in food stuff and other basic necessities for any eventuality. Some women suspended financial transactions in their meeting and thrift and loan groups, especially the payment of interest on loans to permit sisters in financial difficulties to also stock their houses in food stuff. Hence, while government was still fiddling and figuring out what to do, women were already taking strategic measures and paving the way forward to combat and survive coronavirus in Cameroon.
Women, emulated by the youth therefore, guided by the announcement of the above preventive measures started as early as possible to provide vital assistance to counter coronavirus especially in areas affected by violent conflicts and inhabited by the poor and vulnerable majority. They understand that like the entire world, the poor and vulnerable, especially those living in conflict wracked areas in Cameroon or fleeing those areas for safety are in dire need of lifesaving information and resources. Hence, while different sectors both public and private devised strategies to protect their workers and users from the spread of the coronavirus, the poor and vulnerable masses were not a priority, so women, who are always meticulous, had to step in.
Cameroonian women in their multitude and miscellany constitute about 52% of the country’s population and use their numerical edge to amplify their voices, although government is yet to hear their cry for discrimination, underrepresentation and systematic and deliberate exclusion or limited participation in crucial decision making at all levels.
It must be remembered that before the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Cameroon on March 6, 2020, Cameroon women hitherto already shouldered the burden of armed conflicts epitomized by the Boko Haram violent extremism in the far north region on the one hand; and the Anglophone Crisis in the north west and south west regions on the other hand and thus knew they had to intensify their duties and responsibilities. Cameroonian women in their multitude and miscellany constitute about 52% of the country’s population and use their numerical edge to amplify their voices, although government is yet to hear their cry for discrimination, underrepresentation and systematic and deliberate exclusion or limited participation in crucial decision making at all levels. These women, most of whom are poor and vulnerable have seen their situations compounded already by ongoing armed conflicts within the country since 2014 and the creeping in of the global pandemic into Cameroon only aggravates the existing condition.
Rural, urban, educated, uneducated, cultural groups, faith base, organisations, civil society, women from the nooks and crannies of the country and emulated by youth have relentlessly participated in mobilizing and educating grassroot and vulnerable people, the bike riders, Internally Displace Persons (IDPs), market vendors and others on the coronavirus. These women and youth use simulation sessions, local languages, pidgin, the social media outlets, folklore, English and French where appropriate to communicate. These women and youth have also embarked on training underprivileged Cameroonians who cannot easily afford the hydroalcoholic hand sanitizers on how to produce homemade ones. Even hand washing which sounds like a mundane and most affordable measure to fight the COVID-19 virus remains a luxury for some Cameroon households as, “ensuring the availability and sustainable water and sanitation management for all” recommendation to achieve SDG 6 is still a tussle for many. The hand washing itself according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) means “Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water”. The hand washing technic itself needs directions and no other person has been available to teach the ordinary Cameroonians how to effectively wash their hands but women and youth.
women and youth have equally made it their duty to educate such families on how and with what to disinfect such water before use. They provide clean water at strategic places like the markets, road junctions, and others, to encourage more people to frequently wash their hands.
Many Cameroon households, particularly grassroot households and those who live in the slums of the metropolises still trek over long distances to fetch water from streams and spring of very doubtful sources and quality where hazardous chemicals and material are dumped for their household consumption and cleaning. Such water and sanitation deficiencies intersect with other difficulties faced by these vulnerable families who live in slums and expose them to water borne and other related illnesses. Hence, women and youth have equally made it their duty to educate such families on how and with what to disinfect such water before use. They provide clean water at strategic places like the markets, road junctions, and others, to encourage more people to frequently wash their hands.
W.H.O has equally recommended physical and social distancing of at least one meter to being too close to anyone who is coughing or sneezing because, when someone coughs or sneezes they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease. “Human beings are social animals” and are naturally oriented towards one another in solidarity. Asking people to distance themselves for whatever gain may at first sight not be welcomed, thus, the need to sensitize them on the imperative need for such separation to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Women and youth have been at the forefront providing the masses with these lifesaving pieces of information, measuring and drawing how far the one-meter distancing should be, and explaining and translating technical terms like ‘droplets’ using lingua franca and local languages.
Cameroon women and youth have embarked on the production of homemade masks, striving as much as they can to meet the recommended standard.
Although there has been controversy around the wearing of face masks by all. The W.H.O settled on the wearing of mask by all as a means to prevent the spread of the virus but advised that there is a shortage of medical masks and they should be reserved for frontline staff (doctors and nurses) who work directly with patients. Homemade masks have therefore been recommended by W.HO. and governments to meet the demands of ordinary populations. Cameroon women and youth have embarked on the production of homemade masks, striving as much as they can to meet the recommended standard. These face masks produced with their limited financial resources are either sold at prices differing all market prices to enable the poor masses to procure or basically giving them out freely and teaching them how to wear them and wash them for reuse. These early mitigation efforts by women commenced just immediately after the first case was announced in Cameroon have made a difference and retarded the spread of the virus in a country of about 25.000.000 inhabitants but with less than 100 ventilators and wanting health facilities.
Cameroon women still occupy only 11 ministerial posts out of about 63; 31 female mayors out of 306; 26 senators out of 100; no woman contestant in the presidential runup of October 2018; no city mayor among the 14 pioneer city mayors elected in October 2019
Despite all the selfless contributions of the women and youth in nation building, it is with dismay that we still notice their inadequate representation in decision making at all the different levels of the state. Cameroon women still occupy only 11 ministerial posts out of about 63; 31 female mayors out of 306; 26 senators out of 100; no woman contestant in the presidential runup of October 2018; no city mayor among the 14 pioneer city mayors elected in October 2019. Although results of the legislative elections are still awaited, not much is expected. Discriminatory laws in Cameroon including the electoral code which simply requires that a gender perspective be taken into consideration when compiling elections lists, the systematic and deliberate exclusion of women and youth in decision making regarding the COVID-19 national action plan has just come to add to existing discriminations and biases.