Feb 4, 2022
Anglophone Conflict: Female IDPs locked in lurking cycle of housing insecurity
Frida Nain, (not her real names), had escaped from Belo, one of the epicenters of the deadly Anglophone conflict in the restive North West Region in early 2018, after clashes between government forces and separatist fighters saw her home go up in flames. Scampering for safety, she decided to perch tent in Bamenda, the Region’s Administrative Centre where things seemingly were more stable. But that was only going to be the beginning of her travails in her new life as an Internally Displaced Person, commonly referred to today as IDP.
‘Originally, I was well received when I first arrived and managed to secure a one-room house at Ntamulung in Bamenda. The Landlord and neighbours were so sympathetic about what had happened to me back in my native Belo. He said we were a family and I could pay rents of FCFA 10000 per month anytime I tumbled on something. The welcoming neighbours assured me of a daily flow of food. I had thought my relocation to Bamenda was just going to be temporary.’
Hoping against hope:
‘Things started turning sour five months later, when killings and burnings in Belo escalated and my six siblings were forced to join me in my makeshift tattered room in Ntamulung. That seemed to have irked the Landlord who started raising one complain after the other, ranging from my irregularity in paying rents, through my siblings’ misuse of the common toilet, to me coming home late when the corrugated iron sheet gate is looked.’
Frida started spending sleepless nights trying to figure out what might have suddenly gone wrong in relations between her and her new community, especially as even her originally predominantly welcoming male neighbours were reluctant in giving her food and she was also never fortunate to benefit from the numerous humanitarian assistance packages distrubuted here and there in the city of Bamenda.
‘Luck shined on me when a Senator from Boyo came and assisted some IDPs, myself inclusive, with the sum of FCFA 50000 each, to indulge in income-generating activities so as not to continue to be depended on humanitarian support. With that, I started roasting and selling fish infront of a bar at Former Patience voyage near City Chemist, just I could meet up with my rents. That made me to at times keep late nights. But I really doubt whether my misunderstandings with my Landlord started there’.
‘Before the arrival of my siblings, I had noticed the Landlord was always monitoring me, especially when I was going to take my bath and his wife and other tenants were away. He had even proposed to be my companion at one time, and I politely turned it down reminding him he was like my father who unfortunately had been killed during cross fire shootings in Belo. He tried at several occasions to touch me inappropriately.’
Frida got up one fine morning to receive a one week quit notice from a Landlord who had originally been accomodating, and even when she had become more regular in paying her rents with proceeds from her fish roasting business.
‘ I think it was my reluctance to give in to his sexual demands that made him to expel me and my siblings from his compound. I was forced to relocate with them to be doing some farming in Foumbot, West Region, where I am still there today, despite other new challenges.’
Tip of the iceberg:
Frida is not alone. Her ordeal is the microcosm of the macrocosm that female Anglophone Internally Displaced Persons have been facing since the outbreak of the minority Anglophone conflict in 2016, as far as finding, getting and keeping housing is concerned.
‘We got up one morning and saw our shops going up in flames in Widikum after night clashes with Amba fighters and the army. We could barely gather any few belongings, especially as the ‘boys’ had been accusing me of having an affair with a uniform officer. I took off for Douala and spent some few days with a friend as I searched for a house. But middle men were only deceiving me and chopping my money under the pretext they were trying to secure cheap accomodation for me’, Arshley Tasang, an IDP from Widikum who relocated two years ago, narrates.
Stigma and Sexual Exploitation:
‘One day the Middle man asked me to come so he goes show me the accomodation he has secured for me. When we arrived there, and he explained to the Landlord that I was an IDP from Bamenda, he told us he didn’t want people in his compound who have been dealing with Amba, and that being a jobless young lady, he doubted whether I could regularly pay his monthly rents of FCFA 20000.’
Knowing that she was restless, especially as her female friend who received her at Bonaberri was complaining her continuous stay with her was straining her relationship with her francophone boyfriend who had been assisting her pay for apartment, Arshley in her desperation easily fell for a proposal from the Middle man to lodge her in a hotel for one or two nights.
‘The first night he took me out for drinking and in the process, cajoled me that if we spent the night together, he would increase the number of nights for me in the hotel. I desparately gave in. The next morning he left and I never saw or heard from him again.’
Arshley’s troubles finding accomodation were only beginning, especially as with the influx on IDPs into Douala and other Cameroon cities from the two English Speaking Regions and with little or no corresponding increase in housing units, Shyllock Landlords jumped at it to hike rent prices.
‘I was forced to accept one offer for temporal lodging from one boy or acquaintance to another in exchange of my body,’ She lamants.
What with women’s bodies in the context of war and conflict frequently being read as repositories of community honour that can be violated by sexualisation and commoditication.
Finding, keeping and losing housing:
Most Anglophone female IDPs we talked to narrated heart-rendering and agonizing stories about their ordeals finding, keeping and losing housing, ranging from their inability to assure house owners they could pay regularly, through insecure environments to outright stigmatization. Although accessing affordable lodging had been an uphill task in Cameroon’s cities hitherto the outbreak of the conflict, issues have been more compounding for IDPs in general, and female IDPs, in particular.
Many of the barriers to accessing housing for the teaming female IDPs remain unacknowledged and un-addressed by the traditional housing services.
‘Two of us IDPs from Mamfe had gone in search of a house at Melen-Yaounde, but the owner opted to rent it out to the boy, claiming the boy could work hard enough to pay his rents of FCF 15000 regularly than myself. I had only my eyes to weep’, says Brenda Ashu.
‘My six months rents got expired and I wanted to renew the contract, but the Landlord refused, claiming he wanted to refurbish the house and increase the rents to FCFA, and that many more displaced Anglophones were in search of housing where they could pay even years of advance’, Hilda Tuma, a displaced IDP from Mankon-Bamenda, recounted.
Cycle of housing insecurity:
Amid fierce competition for affordable housing units, Landlords have been wielding significant power to decide who gets them. Most IDPs in the cities of Yaounde, Douala, Kribi, Nkongsamba and Bafoussam are reportedly not only being judged more or less worthy of housing based on their cultural and linguistic backgrounds, but more dangerously, on their gender. Because of this, some female IDPs enter into informal rental arrangements without rental agreements as their only remaining option.
‘It is worse when you can only get a house at the outskirts of town or suburban areas infested with drug addicts who can harrass you or your children at anytime. The bad things is that is difficult to find any good school for your children in some neighbourhoods where lodging is affordable. You find yourself sending your children to a francophone school’, Irene Tumasang, an IDP living in Mvan, Yaounde.
Most female IDPs reported to be finding themselves in undesirable neighbourhoods against their wish and areas of high crime where their children are exposed to increased trauma, mental health and physical symptoms that threatened their ability to sustain housing. One IDP in Kribi described how once housed, her trauma symptoms intensified at the exact time her right to be housed in that compound were being withdrawn.
Besides being victimized anew by sexually harrassing Landlords, female IDPs’ efforts at stabilizing themselves in their new environments are hampered by pervasive social network improvisement since their support networks of family and friends also struggle with economic and housing insecurity.
‘Its so so traumatizing telling the same story over and over, and over again to the same friends and family about the need for assistance, when you also know what they are going through where they are’, Eunice Futelah, a female IDP from Fundong, now living in Nkongsamba.
Female IDPs bare the brunt
Unlike their male counterparts who are increasingly accepting the situation and taking the bull by the horns and graduating from renting to acquiring land and constructing their own apartments in other cities and towns of Cameroon, female IDPs often find themselves in the position of losing housing they have been renting again. Evictions happen frequently when female IDPs missed out on rental payment or are not cooperating extra-maritally with landlords. With neighbourhood gentrification resulting in female IDPs being pushed out of affordable housing in cities as soon as rents crept up, they usually end up in more unstable housing situations, doubled up or homeless and more vulnerable.
Not just female IDP, but LGBTQ+
Frida Fien, who lost the opportunity to continue to live in Bamenda because of sexual advances from her Landlord and had to relocate to Foumbot, identifies as lesbian. Unlike Arshley, who could wax her way through in Douala with men before settling down in her own apartment, Frida’s sexual identity distances her from men, and no offer from a male Landlord, however attractive it might be, would be an incentive.
IDPs like Frida, fleeing the conflict in the two English Speaking regions end up facing triple tragedy: socially and structurally excluded from society for being Anglophones, they are today being marginalized and excluded from the housing system for being female and belonging to the LGTBQ+ community. This intersectionality further complicates matters for IDPs in general and female IDPs, in particular.
Disrupting the Cycle of housing insecurity for female IDPs
Disturbingly, Cameroon’s Ministries of Social Affairs, Women Affairs, and more importantly, Housing and Urban Development are headed by women, who should do a better job of proposing incentives to Landlords to be more receptive to female IDPs, in the short-run, and initiating sustainable housing unit policies for Cameroon, in the long-run.
The past five years of conflict have seen female IDPs experience unhealthy physical environments, strained household resources, social network improvisement, sexual exploitation, stigma and discrimination, scarce affordable housing units, eviction, gentrification, and above all, rape and trauma, instead of healing and empowerment.
Cameroon needs housing programmes that adopt IDP-centred and trauma-informed models of care. They deserve flexible comprehensive trauma-informed services that are low-barrier, non-discriminatory, and embrace a gender equity lens to ensure housing services are accessible to all IDPs, regardless of identity and statuses.
Government of Cameroon could require Landlords to utilize prioritzation practices for female IDPs and their children in return for tax deductions or other incentives.
*Colbert Gwain is International Freelance reporter/writer, award winning Digital Rights advocate, Content Creator @TheColbertFactor, legislative advocacy Campaigner for a comprehensive Digital Rights Bill, Privacy and data protection laws for Cameroon, Facebook Trainer of Trainers for Central African zone, promoter, Cameroon Association of Content Creators, CACC, and Specialist on New Digital Civil Society in Africa Playbook. You can talk back at email@example.com