The Far North Region of Cameroon Facing a Humanitarian Disaster

Credit : UNHCR/ B. Ngarguena

As Nigeria continues to fight the islamic extremist group Boko Haram, a humanitarian crisis is looming in the Far North region of Cameroon. In the far north, Cameroon shares one of its longest borders with Nigeria, which has now become very insecure because of frequent transboundary attacks by Boko Haram militants.Since the beginning of this terrorist group’s activities in Nigeria, most of the villages near this border have been deserted, causing massive internal displacements of populations.Thousands have also crossed this border to seek refuge in Cameroon.

The Far North Cameroon is densely populated and predominantly Muslim. Before the influx of Nigerian refugees, the region already faced human development challenges such as low literacy rates, a poor health system, lack of infrastructure, limited access to clean water and discrimination against women. In many villages there, families use their children as farm laborers or cattle rearers rather than sending them to school. Polygamy is also common in this region, causing women to be married early with little say in family decision-making. Many attribute this prevalence of early, child or forced marriage (ECFM) to traditional Islamic practices or local traditions.

In addition, desertification, recurrent floods and erratic distribution of rainfall makes the Far North Cameroon one of the most food-insecure regions in the country. The main staple foods in this region are corn, millet, rice and sorghum, but food production barely meets the nutritional needs of people.This fragile nutritional and food security situation is now compromised because of the massive arrival of Nigerian refugees. The arrival of refugees is disrupting subsistence farming activities and creating additional stress on the already meager food resources of the region.

Despite the fact that Cameroon has deployed an impressive number of soldiers to secure this border with Nigeria and prevent these terrorists from penetrating Cameroon, Boko Haram combattants are still managing to behead Cameroonian farmers and destroy and loot their properties. In January 2015, Cameroon’s  Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development estimated that because of insecurity 70 percent of farmers in some areas of the Far North Region deserted their farms and many more missed out on key farming activities, such as timely planting.

The massive influx of refugees – now amounting to over 23,000 – also places stress on education, water and sanitation improvements. This has become so critical that Cameroon’s Head of State, Paul Biya, recently assigned 4 billion CFA Francs ($6,842,997.77) for the building of schools and provisions of basic equipment for refugees. First Lady, Chantal Biya, followed up with a 50 million CFA Francs donation ($85,537.47) for the supply of sanitation equipment to ease the strains affecting Cameroonians and Nigerian refugees. Yet, as the rainy season approaches, these strains make it likely that there will be epidemics of cholera and other waterborne diseases, further worsening an already complex situation.

The majority of these refugees and resulting internally displaced populations in Cameroon are women and children. They also make up the majority of victims of rape, murder, abduction or ECFM to members of Boko Haram. Children are being forcefully indoctrinated into Boko Haram and trained to commit heinous murders heinous such as  beheadings.

It is important for the global humanitarian community to prioritize this ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Far North region Cameroon by protecting refugees and internally displaced populations, especially women and children. In time of peace women and children are already the most vulnerable population in developing countries, and time of crisis they are the hardest hit. The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the far north of Cameroon is also an occasion for the government of Cameroon and the international development community to reflect on durable solutions to the development challenges that have traditionally plagued this region.

Civil Society Space and The United Nations Human Rights System

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has recently published a guide of practical recommendations on how to create and maintain space for a free and independent civil society. The civil society plays an important role to influence positive change in communities, but this role can only be effective if certain conditions are met. The guide has identified five of such conditions.

  • A conducive political and public environment : The political and public environment must value civil society’s contributions.
  • A supportive regulatory framework: The legislation, administrative rules and practice should be conform to international standards and effectively protect civil society activities. This also means that access to justice, to both national and international human rights institutions should be open to everyone, including civil society actors.
  • Free flow of information: For civil society actors to become aware and informed about issues, effectively articulate concerns, engage constructively, and contribute to solutions it is important that they easily have access to good information.
  • Long term support and resources: There is a need for measures to build capacity for marginalized voice and ensure that all civil society advocates have access to resources, meeting place, and technology.
  • Space for dialogue and collaboration: Civil society must have a place in decision-making processes.

In addition to these five conditions the guide states that “a safe and enabling environment for civil society work must be supported by a robust national legal framework, grounded in international human rights law. Freedoms of expression, association, peaceful assembly, and the right to participate in public affairs, are rights that enable people to mobilize for positive change”.

This said, whether active at the micro level (locally), or at the macro level ( globally) civil society actors may be confronted to a variety of obstacles. The UN High commissioner for Human Rights’ guide listed three of these obstacles. Laws and regulations (e.g Limiting what types of activities can be done, criminal sanctions for unregistered activities), arbitrary measures (e.g Forced office closures,search and seizures of property), and extra-legal harassment, intimidation and reprisals (e.g. Surveillance, torture, disappearances, and killings).

More interestingly the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ guide also explains how UN human rights mechanisms can protect civil society space. Documentation about human rights situations forms the basis for interventions by UN human rights mechanisms, so civil society advocates are invited to carefully document obstacles and threats to their activities.

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Malawi says No to Child Marriage

Credit: Plan International

Child marriage is a human rights violation. Until recently, Malawi was labelled as one of the world’s countries with the highest child marriage rate. The UN Population Fund reports that Malawi has the seventh highest rate of child marriage in the world with half of all girls married before their eighteenth birthday, and nearly one in eight married by age fifteen. According to the World Health Organization, teenage pregnancy accounts for 20 to 30 percent of maternal deaths in Malawi.

The government of Malawi has finally decided to end child marriage by passing the Divorce, Marriage, and Family Relations Bill. This bill increases the legal age of marriage in Malawi to eighteen and now gives civil society organizations a new advocacy tool to protect girls in the country.

The adoption of the new Divorce, Marriage and Family Relations Bill in Malawi is a good news for The Hunger Project. The Hunger Project has been working to stop child marriage in Malawi in particular and in all its program countries in general. Animators throughout our programs run awareness campaigns to put an end to child marriage, violence against girls and other discriminatory practices like dowry and female genital mutilation.

In Bangladesh for example  The Hunger Project trains and empowers teams of women leaders, who are able to reach women secluded in their households with education on basic rights, and on halting child marriage.The Hunger Project also catalyzed the formation of a 300-organization alliance that honors National Girl Child Day in Bangladesh, a day to focus on eradicating all forms of discrimination against girl children, each September.

With the adoption of the Divorce, Marriage and Family Relations Bill in Malawi there are only three Hunger Project program countries remaining (Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Peru) where the legal minimum age for girls’ marriage is less than 18, and as of today none of these three countries is considering a policy change on child marriage.

The Hunger Project will continue to intensify its advocacy efforts for the elimination of child marriage in Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Peru. Child marriage is a bad practice and should be eradicated because it poses severe education and health risks on girls. In parts of Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, child marriage has been shown to lower the likelihood that girls will achieve literacy.  Girls aged fifteen to nineteen are twice as likely to die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth than women in their twenties, and girls under age fifteen are five times more likely to die.

The Divorce, Marriage, and Family Relations Bill will reduce maternal death in Malawi, contribute to healthier families and improve the education of Malawian girls. Healthier and better educated Malawian girls will be able to  achieve their potential and fully contribute to economic growth of Malawi.

The IFPRI 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report: Focus of Sanitation and Nutrition

The International Food Policy Research Institute recently released the 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report. The 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report is the fourth of its kind in an annual series to provide a comprehensive overview of major food policy events and developments. As issues of sanitation and nutrition in developing countries moved to the top of the post-2015 development agenda, one key point developed in the 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report is the importance of sanitation for nutrition. Clean water, sanitation and hygiene are important and go hand-in-hand with good nutrition.

The 2014-2015 Global Food Policy Report notes that the nutritional consequences of sanitation, especially for open defecation without using toilet or latrines, are particularly devastating for children. Poor sanitation and deficient WASH expose growing children to germs that cause disease. Because children’s height reflect their nutrition and health during the first few years of life there is a link between children’s height and WASH.To stress why action is absolutely needed, and why policymakers need to invest heavily in improving WASH, the new Global Food Policy Report is based on empirical and biomedical evidences that highlight the link between poor sanitation and the nutritional outcomes for children in developing countries.

Recent research suggest for example that during the past 40 years, improvement in water and sanitation have been one of the key drivers in reduction in child stunting across 116 countries (Smith and Haddad, 2015).Furthermore, it has now been demonstrated that children in India are shorter on average than much poorer children in Africa south of the Sahara because they are exposed to a much greater density of open defecation (Spears, 2013). Also, in addition to diarrhea and parasitic infection, environmental enteropathy, a complex disorder of the intestines caused by inflammatory response to ingestion of large quantities of fecal germs (Humphrey, 2009) can reduce the ability of child’s intestines to absorb nutrients and cause poor nutrition.

Based on these facts and evidences the International Food Policy Research Institute’s report recommends the inclusion of improving sanitation (especially reducing open defecation) among nutrition supporting policy priorities. For The Hunger Project too, good hygiene and sanitation are important and should be integrated as a priority in nutrition policies. Through our bottom-top women centered development strategy we work to empower rural communities in developing countries to ensure increased access to clean water and improved sanitation.

Thanks to The Hunger Project capacity building projects, 961 latrines were constructed, installed, or rehabilitated in Africa in 2014. Today, 60 percent of people worldwide who defecate in the open live in India.The Hunger Project is empowering Indian elected women leaders with the knowledge to participate in the development of their communities, and solve water and sanitation problems locally.

References

J.H.Humphrey, “Child Undernutrition, Tropical Enteropathy, Toilets, and Handwashing, “The Lancet, 374, no. 9694 (2009): 1032-1035.

Smith and L. Haddad, “Reducing Child Undernutrition: past Drivers and Priorities for the Post-MDG Era” World Development 68 (forthcoming, April 2015)

Spears, How Much International Variation in Child Height Can Sanitation Explain? Policy Research Working Paper 6351 (Washington, DC: World Bank 2013)