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Enslaved: The children paying the price of Cameroon’s Separatist conflict

The conflict has forced more children into work and left them vulnerable to slave-like conditions

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anglophone crises
Burned buses at the bus terminal in Buea, South West Region, Cameroon. (Photo by - / AFP)

Fourteen-year-old Landa wakes up at 4 a.m. every day to wash dishes and scrub floors before feeding and dressing her boss’s children for school, which she is not allowed to attend.

She has worked as a live-in servant, unpaid, for a year in Cameroon’s commercial capital Douala since a separatist conflict forced her family to flee their hometown in the southwest.

Out of work and living with a cousin, Landa’s mother entrusted her to a wealthier couple who promised to send her to school in exchange for babysitting.

Residents from the South West Region of Cameroon arrive at the bus terminal in Buea as they try to flee renewed clashed in the restive anglophone region on July 15, 2018. – Twenty civilians, including five students and a teacher, were killed on july 11-12, 2018 by the Cameroonian army in two localities in the Anglophone North-West region. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Like many, she was deceived.

“I do everything. I do the dishes, the laundry. I wash the floors. I don’t sleep until everyone else is in bed,” said Landa, whose name has been changed for her protection.

It is a world away from flying planes or delivering babies – the jobs Landa had dreamt would be hers after finishing school.

She is one of thousands of children uprooted by fighting in Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions, where a movement for independence from the majority Francophone country turned violent in 2017.

It was already common for girls from the English-speaking regions, whose population has long felt marginalised, to work as maids in the country’s two main cities, Douala and Yaounde.

But the conflict has forced more children into work and left them vulnerable to slave-like conditions as thousands of schools shut and families fight poverty, said local human rights groups.

The government denied this, saying many displaced children had been welcomed by host families and enrolled in school in Douala, Yaounde and other cities, and that mistreatment of domestic workers was not a problem in Cameroon.

“Cameroon is a country of rights where this type of practice, if it existed, would be severely punished under our law,” said the communications ministry in a statement.

One activist estimated that hundreds of girls from the conflict zone, at the very least, were trapped in domestic servitude in the major cities.

“Most often they promise the parents to educate their daughters, to take care of them and give them a better future,” said Thomas Ngoh Mudoh, president of the Human Rights Defence Club, a national non-governmental organisation.

“But 95% of the time, this is not the case. These young girls, innocent and manipulable, become domestic slaves,” he said.

The girls often work without rest and some are raped or beaten, he said. If they are paid, it is often with rice, salt or oil that is sent to their families in the conflict zone.

Young boys who have fled the conflict also work, sometimes on construction sites or collecting plastic bottles; others are left to fend for themselves on the streets, locals said.

A price to pay

The crisis has forced half a million people to flee their homes and left 1.3 million in need of aid, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Security forces have used heavy-handed tactics to quash the rebellion, including destroying schools, medical facilities and entire villages, said a U.N. rights committee.

The separatists have also closed schools as part of their protests and been accused of kidnapping dozens of children.

Soldiers of the 21st Motorized Infantry Brigade patrol in the streets of Buea, South-West Region of Cameroon on April 26, 2018. – A social crisis that began in November 2016 has turned into armed conflict since October 2017. Several small armed groups demand the independence of the two English-speaking regions of Cameroon, bordering Nigeria. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

Landa attended school in the department of Manyu until two years ago, when clashes between separatists and the army reached her town. She fled with her family as houses burned.

They were barely getting by, living seven to a room, when Landa’s mother fell sick and their desperation grew.

The job offer meant one less child to feed.

“My mother accepted. I wasn’t going to school anyway and my boss promised to send me later,” Landa said.

Landa’s boss, who owns two clothing shops, told reporters that she would send her to school next year.

“This year I couldn’t because the children were very sick and there was no money,” she said.

But the family recently bought a new car and repainted their apartment, said Landa, who wants to finish her studies. Before the conflict, she had dreamed of becoming a pilot or a midwife.

Other girls and parents of girls who had left home considered servitude an acceptable price to pay for safety.

“Being employed in a house is better than anything. I don’t hear shooting and cries anymore,” said Katia, 18, who fled the northwest region for Yaounde last year.

She is scolded and humiliated at work and earns just 5,000 CFA francs a month, she said, but her boss also feeds her and gives her old clothes.

“At least there, they are in houses,” said a beautician with relatives who had gone to the cities to work as maids.

“Even if they are mistreated, it’s not serious. It’s the school of life,” she said from her home town of Buea, in the southwest region.

“We are slaves”

For many girls, the alternative to housework is prostitution, said victims, families and activists. The government said these reports were unfounded. At nightfall, in the Bonaberi quarter of Douala, the bars are full of girls, many with childlike faces.

“The prostitution rate has risen. We find many young Anglophone girls having fled the crisis who were left to themselves with no money, no resources,” said Bibiana Mbuh Taku, co-founder of a women’s empowerment association called Otabong.

Residents from the South West Region in Cameroon arrive at the bus terminal in Buea fleeing renewed clashed in the restive anglophone region on July 15, 2018. (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)

Taku tries to source donations for the girls’ schooling, but said it is difficult; even in her educated circle, she said, friends were regularly seeking young girls to do housework.

“I explain to them that it’s slavery. They must understand a child’s place is in school, not in the home,” she said.

Felicity, 15, earns 10,000 CFA francs a month working as a housekeeper which she sends to her mother and younger brothers taking refuge in Douala. Her sister, 17, works the streets.

“It’s hard. They threaten me and I work a lot. One time I even passed out because I didn’t have time to eat,” she said, on a rare Sunday break when she was given four hours off to visit her mother in the outskirts of Douala.

Her mother, 53 and divorced, said she never wanted this outcome for her daughters but that they had fled their home in the southwest with nothing and had no other means to eat.

“Because of the Anglophone crisis, I am a ‘maid’ and my big sister sells herself,” said Felicity. “We are the slaves of this dirty war.” 

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Central Africa News

Measles is a bigger threat in DR Congo than Ebola – NGO

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the World Health Organization

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Measles has killed 2,758 people in DR Congo since January, more than the Ebola epidemic in a year, medical NGO Doctors Without Borders said, and called Saturday for a “massive mobilisation of funds.”

The disease, preventable with a vaccine, has infected over 145,000 people in the Democratic Republic of Congo between January and early August, it said in a statement.

“Since July, the epidemic has worsened, with a rise in new cases reported in several provinces,” said the NGO that goes by its French acronym MSF.

“Only $2.5 million has been raised out of the $8.9 million required for the Health Cluster response plan  — in stark contrast with the Ebola epidemic in the east of the country, which attracts multiple organisations and hundreds of millions of dollars in funding,” it added.

MSF tweeted that without a “massive mobilisation of funds and response organisations, the current measles outbreak in #DRCongo could get even worse.”

The NGO said it has vaccinated 474,860 children between the ages of six months and five years since the beginning of the year and provided care to more than 27,000 measles patients.

In the country’s east, Ebola has claimed more than 1,900 lives since erupting last August.

Measles is a highly-contagious diseased caused by a virus that attacks mainly children. The most serious complications include blindness, brain swelling, diarrhoea, and severe respiratory infections.

Last year, cases more than doubled to almost 350,000 from 2017, according to the World Health Organization, amid a rise in “anti-vaxxer” sentiment in some countries that can afford the vaccine, and lagging resources for the preventative measure in poor nations.

DR Congo declared a measles epidemic in June.

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76 people survive shipwreck in DR Congo

The motorised boat was carrying around 100 passengers when it capsized on the lake, near the eastern city of Bukavu.

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DR Congo boat accident claims 11 lives, dozens missing

76 people have survived a shipwreck on Lake Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a regional official said Saturday. However, more than a dozen people are feared to have drowned in the same incident.

The motorised boat was carrying around 100 passengers when it capsized on the lake, near the eastern city of Bukavu. 

“We have already registered 76 survivors,” said Swedi Basila, the regional transport minister for South Kivu province, adding that up to 20 people were still missing.

“No body has been found until now,” he told AFP.

The vessel had been on its way to the island of Idjwi when it hit a large rock and capsized, Basila said.

River transport is one of the most used in DR Congo with its numerous waterways. Boat mishaps are common, typically caused by overloading of passengers and cargo.

Tolls are often high because there are no life jackets and many Congolese do not know how to swim.

In April, at least 167 people were killed in two accidents, prompting President Felix Tshisekedi to make it mandatory for boat passengers to have life jackets. 

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DR Congo authorities ban rallies in Kinshasa as tensions rise

Tensions rose in the capital after youths announced they would hold a protest against the candidacy of a former justice minister

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UDPS opposition party leader Felix Tshisekedi gestures to supporters as Authorities bans rallies

DR Congo authorities have banned political rallies this week in the capital Kinshasa because of tensions between supporters of President Felix Tshisekedi and those of former leader Joseph Kabila, police said Sunday.

Tshisekedi was elected in December to replace Kabila who presided over sub-Saharan Africa’s biggest country for nearly two decades.

Tensions rose in the capital after the youth wing of Tshisekedi’s Democracy and Social Progress party (UDPS) announced it would hold a protest against the candidacy of a former justice minister for the senate presidency.

In response, the pro-Kabila Red Berets movement said it would hold a counter-march to support the candidacy of Alexis Thambwe, who is considered by many a hardliner from the Kabila regime.

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Kinshasa police chief General Sylvano Kasongo told state television that given the tensions in the capital, Kinshasa’s governor had banned all political rallies for this week. “He instructed the police to take all appropriate measures. Anyone who attempts to march or disturb the public order this week will find the police in their way,” he said.

UDPS youth wing spokesman Fils Mukoko told reporters they wanted to protest against seeing “the same faces in charge of the country’s institutions or in the government.”

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) coalition won comfortable majorities in both houses of parliament as well as provincial assemblies, and his supporters also dominated elections for the governorships across the country.

Read also: GNA announces a new political plan, promises elections in Libya

None of the candidates the FCC presented for seven key Senate posts is from Tshisekedi’s CACH alliance in the legislature despite an agreement to work together between the two political blocs.

Six months after Tshisekedi’s inauguration and more than a month after the appointment of Prime Minister Ilunga Ilunkamba, who was proposed by Kabila, CACH and FCC negotiators are still struggling to agree on the composition of the government.

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