In Her Own Words

“When they work closely together, support each other, and aim for the same goal, women peacebuilders are seen, their message is heard, and their impact is exponential.”

Esther Omam is the Executive Director of Reach Out Cameroon, a local, women-led civil society organization based in the Southwest and Northwest regions of Cameroon working to improve the livelihoods of women, youth and children and amplify their voices in national and global spaces.

A firm believer in the transformative power of female leadership, Esther has been tirelessly working to promote the effective participation of women and girls in Cameroon’s peacebuilding efforts, creating spaces and platforms for women peacebuilders to work together, enhance their knowledge and skills, strengthen their networks and systems, and unify their voices for greater impact.

“Through our work, we’re connecting the grassroots with the national, amplifying the voices of community peace mediators and providing them with new channels to interact with policymakers and other feminist organizations.”

A seasoned humanitarian, women’s rights advocate and peace mediator, Esther has become one of the most prominent voices calling for greater female representation in Cameroon’s Major National Dialogue, which aims to resolve the country’s long-standing civil war — also known as the Anglophone crisis — in the Northwest and Southwest regions.

“Despite the key role they play in conflict de-escalation and mediation, women continue to be marginalized when it comes to decision-making and leadership positions.”

With support from the Rapid Response Window of the United Nations Women’s Peace and Humanitarian Fund (WPHF) and in partnership with the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN), Reach Out Cameroon, under Esther’s leadership, brought together a coalition of grassroots women peacebuilders from both regions to develop an advocacy plan to effectively increase the number of women involved in the monitoring mechanisms of the Major National Dialogue.

As part of this project, a delegation of women peacebuilders was invited to meet with Cameroon’s Prime Minister to discuss the most pressing challenges hindering their peacebuilding work on the ground. Following this encounter, some members of the coalition were invited to attend official meetings organized by the government, becoming involved in national women’s platforms and going back to their communities with renewed enthusiasm to carry out outreach activities and engage with local authorities.

“WPHF heard our cry and gave us voice to express our issues and concerns. We came to you, and you responded. That’s why the support WPHF provides to women peace mediators is so important: it puts them at the heart of all activities, making sure they’re trusted within the community.”

Having dealt with threats and attacks — both on herself and her family — for many years, Esther knows firsthand the complex matrix of safety and security issues women peacebuilders face in Cameroon, especially in remote areas, where INGOs and other international actors are mostly absent. The lack of protection mechanisms, together with high illiteracy rates and deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes that downgrade female leadership, is deterring Cameroonian women from effectively carrying out their peacebuilding work and organizing themselves at the grassroots level.

“Now is the time for women peacebuilders to be resilient, bold, and empowered — but also to make sure their work doesn’t put their lives at stake.”

Ensuring women’s safe participation in public life and decision-making, however, is not enough. As Esther points out, insufficient funding and the lack of trust in feminist civil society groups have become major barriers preventing women peacebuilders from meaningfully engaging in Cameroon’s Major National Dialogue. Against this backdrop, she says, providing these local organizations with tailored capacity-building, advocacy and networking opportunities is a critical step to advance their work on the ground and make their voices heard beyond the limits of their communities.

“We’re asking the international community to trust us, to fund our activities and coalitions, and to give credibility and visibility to the vital work women peacebuilders do in Cameroon. Policies are beautiful on paper, but they need to translate into reality on the ground.”