Displacement and resilience: Five women, five stories
Date: 17 June 2019
The Far North Region of Cameroon is an arid area bordering Nigeria; it’s also the poorest part of the country. According to latest UN data, of the 104,724 Nigerian refugees in Cameroon, 102,803 are in this region, displaced by the Boko Haram insurgency. In addition, there are 262,831 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in this area.
As Boko Haram escalated its insurgency in Nigeria in 2014, the conflict scattered families across borders and from bordering towns, killing thousands of civilians and soldiers, and placing incredible economic strain on the communities of the Far North. Half of the refugees and internally displaced in the area are women and girls—mothers who are supporting entire households, wives who have seen their husbands slaughtered, girls who have been married off even though they are too young to wed, and sisters who have been raped.
Join us for a journey into the Far North Region to meet five women who have traversed immense tragedies and emerged as resilient leaders, survivors and entrepreneurs.
The hairdresser of Mora
Everyone in Mora, a small town in the Far North Region, knows Ramata Adigre’s hair salon. Ramata, 22 years old, fled her village in Nigeria after Boko Haram attacked her family
“I came to Mora in 2015 from Aisahardi village in Cameroon. The Boko Haram came to my neighbourhood and slaughtered my uncle, his wives and his son. They beheaded my uncle in front of my eyes. My husband abandoned me that day and I haven’t heard from him since. I don’t know if he is dead or alive.”
Ramata fled with her older son, two years old at the time. She was pregnant with her second child.
“We slept in the bushes for days and then walked towards Mora.”
Initially, Ramata found shelter with another woman who put her up in a spare room. She worked in a small restaurant and earned 250 CFA (less than a dollar) per day. It was too little money to afford rent and food.
“I heard about an empty hut that was damaged, so I repaired the hut, I fixed the roof, and that’s where I still live. I gave birth to my second son in the hut, without any medical help.”
For many refugees and displaced women who live in the host communities in the Far North Region, access to health care and affording rent are their biggest challenge.
As she struggled to provide for herself and her sons, Ramata didn’t get any help to tackle the trauma she had endured, until she found the women’s empowerment centre in Mora.
“At the centre, I received counselling, which helped a lot. Before the counselling, I couldn’t sleep, I had nightmares, and the image of my uncle being beheaded flashed through my mind often.”
Even before fleeing Boko Haram, life was not easy for Ramata. Her husband was abusive and beat her often.
“The counselling helped me…I learned that when a husband beats you or people in the neighbourhood treat you badly (because you are woman), it’s gender-based violence, and it’s wrong.”
Ramata’s entrepreneurial journey started at the women’s centre, with a four-day training on how to set up and manage a small business, and a start-up kit to make and sell groundnut oil and snacks, a popular commodity in the area. With the money she earned and saved, Ramada started her hair dressing business.
“I have been braiding and styling hair for my friends since I was 10 or 12 years old,” she said as she worked. “I am very proud of this shop. When I earned only 250 CFA making fufu (a staple food in West Africa), I couldn’t even buy soap or feed my child. But now I have a business and I am saving money.”
“My dream is to make this salon bigger and to become a better hairdresser. I have lost a lot in my life, but I want my sons to go to school and become successful. And, I am teaching them that it is wrong to mistreat women.”
The community worker
When Ramata arrived in Mora, it was Fanta Jacqueline who took her to the women’s centre.
Fanta had fled her village and come to Mora four years ago. It was the seventh time that Boko Haram had attacked her village, killed and pilfered, and set homes on fire.
“We were afraid to sleep in our homes at night. We would do all the work during the day and by 3 p.m., we would go into the bush to sleep. We would dig holes into the ground and put mosquito nets over them to keep the babies warm and safe.”
Fanta fled with her four children. Her husband had died before the attacks.
In Mora, she tried to build a new life with a new partner and had a child with him. But then, he started beating her and eventually abandoned her.
Fanta received counselling and other services from the women’s centre supported by UN Women. And slowly, her self-confidence was restored. Her own attitudes about what is expected from girls and women also changed.
“At one time, I was frustrated with five children that I had to look after by myself, and I had decided to marry off my first daughter,” she remembers. “But the centre advised me against it, and now I see the benefit of keeping her in school. I tell other women in the community to keep their daughters in school.”
“I’ve told my daughter to take her studies seriously, and she does. Where I came from, people didn’t know the value of daughters going to school. But now many of us see that every child has value.”
As more women gain independence and become aware of their rights, they are raising a new generation of children with more equality, potential and dreams.
Today, Fanta works at the women’s centre as a community worker. “I visit women in their homes if they are having problems and I feel relieved when I can restore peace between the couple. The social workers visit the husbands to counsel them as well.”
Bage Jidda spent three years as a hostage of Boko Haram militants. She lived in terror every day. But looking at her today, that is hard to believe.
“I lost my husband in Maiduguri, Nigeria. They beheaded my husband right in front of me. I lost my sight temporarily from the shock… I couldn’t see.”
The Boko Haram militants then came back for her. “I left my village with only one of my boys, he was four years old at the time,” she recalls.
“They made the women cover themselves in burqa and read the Quran. They lined up a group of men and then the women would be asked to choose a man to marry. They would give us three chances to make a choice. If a woman didn’t pick a man by the third time, they would slaughter her.”
She refused twice. On the third time, she accepted to marry.
Bage escaped Boko Haram when the army raided the house. The army brought her to the Minawao refugee camp in Cameroon, where she was reunited with her other children. With assistance from the women’s empowerment centre, Bage slowly nurtured her small tailoring business.
“The centre helped me get a birth certificate and a national id card. I received training in tailoring, and the centre provided me with a tailoring machine. That’s how I started making some money and left the refugee camp and rented a little home for me and my children.”
Life is still hard for Bage, but she lives with dignity. “I hope the UN continues to help so that more women like me can take care of ourselves,” she says. “And, if you can construct houses for us, that would be very good… rent is not cheap here.”
The social worker
Koche Maina is a Social Worker and counsellor for gender-based violence survivors at the sprawling Minawao camp. She is from the nearby town of Maroua and is personally invested in the work that she does.
“I joined this job because majority of the women in this camp are from my ethnic group, Kanuri. I wanted to be personally involved with the project and understand what they are going through and be able to support them,” she explains.
“I want to be a role model, because people here think that Kanuri women can’t do anything. I want to show the women a different reality. I am a Kanuri woman and I am doing my PhD. I want to show them that Kanuri women can go beyond the prejudices that shadow them.”
Social workers like Maina provide critical psychosocial support that refugee and displaced women need.
Building the resilience of women and their communities in this conflict-affected region means enabling them to earn a decent living. The women’s empowerment centres supported by UN Women are playing an indispensable role in facilitating women’s access to training, start-up business kits and more.
“It’s the only opportunity that women have, and the only safe space they can access to come together, learn new skills and get psychosocial support. There are no other services like this,” says Jimmy Henry Nyingcho, UN Women project manager.
Kuda Mariam, 28-year-old mother of five, displaced from her village in Ganse, a border town near Nigeria, agrees.
“My dream is to become an independent businesswoman. I think I am the best businesswoman in Mora,” she says.
The best businesswoman of Mora
Kuda walked from Ganse to Mora with her husband and children some three years back fleeing Boko Haram attacks
In Mora, when she started receiving food assistance as an Internally Displaced Person, she saved some food and started selling it in the local market. She also worked as a day labourer, breaking stones into gravel—a job that’s usually done by women in the Far North. In the meantime, her husband did nothing. “He took part of my money to buy alcohol and got drunk,” Kuda said.
When Kuda received a bag of millet as part of humanitarian assistance, she planted some to grow millet in a rented plot of land.
When the food subsidy stopped, tension between Kuda and her husband grew, and he started beating her. “One day, a woman in the neighbourhood told me that there was a place that took care of women like me. That’s how I found the women’s empowerment centre.”
Kuda and her husband received counselling support. She also received an “economic kit”—a start-up kit to make and sell groundnut oil and snacks. “I also learned how to manage a business, how to save and calculate my profits, how to process products in a clean way and how to present them to buyers.”
Armed with these new skills, Kuda went to work. “By selling about ten kilo of groundnut oil, I was making a profit of 4000 CFA (USD 7, approximately), and I used some of the profit to start my agriculture. This season I am growing garlic, because it’s easy to store after harvesting and it can keep for a while. When the price is low, I can store it and wait for the price to come up before selling,” she explained, showing her business acumen.
“Now my husband has changed his ways and he is supportive. He helps me cultivate the garlic,” she added.
Kuda is determined to put all her children through school, including her daughters. Her oldest daughter is 14 years old, and early marriage is off the table.
“I don’t want to hear about marriage,” says Kuda. “For girls (and women) economic resilience is very important because it makes women independent. You don’t have to ask your husband for things every time. Today you ask for soap, next day you ask for salt… this is no way to live.”
On Kuda’s wish list are a house of her own and a water pump to irrigate her fields so that she doesn’t have to rent one. She has done the math; it would help her save money in the long term.
UN Women has supported women refugees, IDPs and survivors of gender-based violence in the Far North Region since 2016, first through a multi-sectoral programme funded by the Government of Japan, and more recently through a programme supported by the UN Central Emergency Respond Fund. Five women’s empowerment centres have been set up in the communities of Mokolo, Mora, Kolofata, Mozogo and Makari. The programme has facilitated access to identification cards, birth and marriage certificates for 800 women and girls. It has taught women business skills so that they can earn an income, and provided much-needed psychosocial support. It has also built the capacity of police, lawyers, magistrates, gendarmerie and social workers to better protect women in humanitarian setting and respond to survivors of gender-based violence.