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Safe Spaces

How women across generations are supporting each other through crisis

Women in their teens are joining forces with those in their twenties, thirties, forties, and beyond in Cameroon to give each other strength through crisis.

Since 2014, Boko Haram, one of Africa's deadliest militant groups, has been making brutal, horrific attacks on villages in the Far North of the country. Many have lost their loved ones, had to flee their homes and been subject to attacks.  Such violence has disproportionately affected vulnerable groups including women and girls, who have been subject to rape, kidnapping, or sexual slavery.

Women of all ages in Cameroon have faced this unimaginable trauma and so when the International Rescue Committee (IRC) opened safe spaces there, it is women of all ages who came together to support one another.

Like 41-year-old Amira, whose family members were killed during Boko Haram raids. Since that day, she has had headaches and chest pains, her emotional turmoil showing in physical pain.

But just over a year ago, she went to one of our safe spaces where women sew together and talk about their lives. “I no longer feel alone after hearing stories similar to my own from other women. We talk about our problems and it really makes me feel better,” she tells us.  

After two months of going to the centre she started to notice her headaches and chest pains fade away.

30-year-old Kaltimi has also said the group made her feel less lonely after her husband was shot by a member of Boko Haram. She was six months pregnant and had to flee her village with her children. “I became weary of life and slowly began to lose hope,” she says.  

But Kaltimi found strength at the safe space. “We support and encourage each other in whatever way we can,” she says. “I am grateful for the IRC’s safe space which has brought together so many women and helped them overcome their problems.”

Boko Haram also attacked 23-year-old Gogo’s village and she kept the horrific abuse she experienced to herself for a year, feeling too ashamed to tell people what had happened.

That day, four men raped her. “I spend my nights re-seeing the men who did that to me,” she says.

It was at a safe space that she decided to break her silence and confided in Basma, an IRC psychosocial assistant. After hearing her story, the IRC arranged to give her counselling sessions and she was also taken to the hospital. The attack had left her in need of an operation. She was helped with both her emotional and physical scars.

The friends she’s made at the safe space are helping her through the immense pain she’s been through.

Her story has inspired many other women to visit and share their experiences with others.

By coming together in a space they can call their own, these women in Cameroon are able to support each other to heal and rebuild their lives.

Boko Haram and the conflict in Cameroon continues to pose an enormous threat to the safety and wellbeing of women. The International Rescue Committee, in partnership with the European Commission's Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO), is on the ground providing vital emotional support for those affected by the violence.

Names have been changed to protect identities and photos are not of the women featured in this blog.