Peacebuilding: Christelle Bay Nfor ED HOFNA CAMEROON engaging through battle against GBV

By Bakah Derick in Bamenda

The Founder and Executive Director of Hope for the Needy Association HOFNA Cameroon, has expressed concerns over a potential rise in cases of Gender Based Violence as many stay home with the partial lockdowns around the world, especially in her community that is already suffering from a violent conflict which is affecting thousands of women and girls.
Christelle Bay C aired her worry in a conversation with this reporter aimed at evaluating the achievements of her organization in relation to her objectives, as well as on Coronavirus pandemic, the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security and her future plans.
Christelle Bay Nfor

For over ten years and counting, Christelle Bay C. has dedicated her time in advocating against gender-based violence GBV, leading peace initiatives, empowering women and girls with leadership and self-reliant skills and preventing radicalization and violent extremism. This has been through Hope for the Needy Association HOFNA Cameroon, an organisation she founded in 2007, meant to build the leadership, power and voices of women and girls through special initiatives like By-the-fireside, creative arts, poetry, leadership boot camps, workshops and skill building.

Christelle Bay Nfor
HOFNA CAMEROON Executive Director with women during the POWER project in Buea

Headquartered in Bamenda North West NW Region of Cameroon where women’s rights are continually kept tightly reined in by the men who seek to control them like in most patriarchal African communities, Christelle Bay and HOFNA speak out against this oppression of women in general and NW women in particular, amplifying voices of women and girls while pulling pressure on key stakeholders including government bodies to ensure that the needs, priorities and concerns of women and girls remain at the forefront of decisions around peacebuilding and nation building especially from the grassroots.

Christelle Bay Nfor
HOFNA CAMEROON Executive Director with Cameroon Women Empowerment Minister in an international function

She has been leading with her association what can be described as a vigilante group against GBV, gaining members (who are other grassroots women-led organizations) with whom they work to promote gender and social justice. These connections, forthrightness, wisdom and initiatives that are positively impacting lives have made her a role model for women in the NW and South West Region in Particular and Cameroon as a whole.
Since 2015, HOFNA has built the income generating skills of over 400 women and teenage mothers most of whom are internally displaced. Over 300 women leaders from the Conflict affected North West and South West regions and the center region have been engaged on building safe spaces for women and girls in times of violent Conflict and amplifying women’s vices for a more sustainable and inclusive peace. Focus of her works have been on building capacities to respond to and prevent GBV in times of conflict and building on mediation and advocacy skills in peacebuilding.
Foin Haigga Nambu from Belo subdivision in Boyo division of the NW Region. The mother of four has been forced to abandon her teaching job by the crisis in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon. She now sees Christelle Bay as her source of inspiration.

Christelle Bay Nfor
HOFNA CAMEROON Executive Director with participants at Girls leadership camp

“Mme Christelle Bay has inspired me so much. I can speak out for my community now in truth and humility. I now believe that if she can do it successfully then I can and other women can too. I'm so inspired by the way she relates with all. I try to emulate her as a women rights activist in my own community.” She said adding that, after hearing about Christelle Bay, meeting her on two occasion became the turning point of her life.

“I have been hearing so much about her in relation to the work she is doing as the leader of HOFNA Cameroon. And meeting with her in two occasions that is, the seminar at pastoral center Bamenda and in the German Embassy Yaoundé, I can say that she is the Mandela of our time so far as women activism is concerned. Mme Bay is a woman to reckon with. She is humble, ready to listen to all, Sociable, motherly, hardworking, and just in her dealings with all women, she is brave and ready to break the silence so far as gender base violence and peace is concerned. And to see into it that the girl child and women are empowered and self-reliant.”

HOFNA CAMEROON ending women for Women initiative with NW Governor present (in black)

The two events during which Foin Haggai Nambu met Christelle had as focus, “building safe spaces for women and girls and building the skills of women leaders on response to and prevention of gender-based violence in conflict.” This was summed up in the Women for Women Initiative and the Promotion of Women’s Economic Empowerment and Rights POWER project.

“As we all understand, insecurity of any kind anywhere threatens peace of all kind everywhere and at HOFNA, we believe that true peace comes when there is NO violence against women and girls.” Christelle told regional administrators during the closing ceremony of the event in Bamenda.

Inspired by Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and other outstanding women in her travels around the globe, Christelle Bay, a former teacher of Chemistry, banker and now a Masters of Arts student in Conflict, Security and Development at the University of Sussex in England has risen to claim and protect the rights of other women in her community insisting on a better world,  and persisting in the face of adversity.

Another woman who now shares Christelle’s philosophy is Ramatu Abdu a Mbororo women’s leader from the Northwest. The PhD student at the University of Bamenda is now an activist working with mostly the Mbororo communities to empower women and girls and also working on GBV in her community through her organization Association for the Welfare of Women and Indigenous People ASOWWIP.

“I met Bay last year in her mediation leadership and peace building workshop at the pastoral center. She is selfless and works so hard to inspire women especially the grass root women. She can bring together so many women. She is a good mediator and a great motivational speaker. She gives her all to women and inspires a lot. She is a good adviser and listener, and has a lot of respect. She stands up to defend women and works on combatting gender-based violence in communities. She is a great lady with a heart of gold and she is always ready to render her services at all level.” This is what she has in mind about Christelle Bay.

With multiple awards, fellowships, affiliations and scholarships including the Peace and Social Change Fellowship of Columbia University's Women, Peace and Security program 2019, the National Award of Excellence for Championing the fight Against Violent Extremism (2018), The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders (2014), and the prestigious Chevening Scholarship, Christelle Bay has remained a dedicated wife and mother as she stands amongst the brave women despite the shrinking moments when she suffers harassments, intimidation and bullying. This explains why her workshops and initiatives have been much focused and consistent even in the heart of the violent conflict.

“In most of our trainings in HOFNA, we've asked the women "what is peace to you?". Our concept is that peace means different things to different people at any point in time and imposing our own versions of peace on others, most often, is a source of violence. To an IDP teenager in the bush for example, peace is access to sanitary pads. To a mother of 6 children who’s lost her husband to the bullet, peace could be access to food or education for these children. So by addressing gender-based violence, building income generating skills of women and teenage mothers, connecting local Initiatives to global platforms, by providing for trauma healing through our by the fireside talks, amongst others, for HOFNA, these are some of those pieces of peace being put together to build the big picture of peace in Cameroon and the world.”

For the many things she has been doing in the past years, training young women is uniquely memorable. “One of the important initiatives I lead is training at least 50 teenage girls each year on Leadership, entrepreneurship, peace building - an initiative I conceived in 2016. To us, this forms a very critical aspect of peace building as it offers for bridging of intergenerational gaps - passing on the mantle of Leadership in peace building to the next generation of Women Leaders.”

Enter Christelle Bay C, HOFNA and the UNR1325
Christelle Bay’s actions have been a perfect reflection of the United Nations Security Council Resolution UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security unanimously voted on the 31st of October 2000. Dealing with issues of gender-based violence in a patriarchal society like the NW  for example, according HOFNA’s Founder, is first of all a challenge to the socioeconomic empowerment of women and girls. And in times of violent conflicts like what is happening in her community (and the SWR), the situation becomes even more demanding.

“UNSCR1325 remains particularly important as it emphasizes on attention to specific needs of women and girls in Conflict (here I emphasize on the prevention of all forms of gender based violence in times of (violent) conflicts). It further emphasizes on equal participation and representation of women in decision making around peace building at all levels, then protection as well as relief and recovery.” She said

According to Christelle, “Grassroots women, in their own local ways, with very limited information on this very important resolution are leading initiatives that build on what UNSCR1325 cares about. They lead mediation processes, use traditional methods to promote conflict resolution in communities and work with limited resources and visibility to address GBV.”

As an individual, the activist states “My focus is on building on a bottom-top approach to realizing the implementation of UNSCR1325 in Cameroon. This is around building capacities of grassroots women to effectively participate in peace building processes, not simply because they are women, but because they have a grasp of the process and do have the capacity to positively transform peace processes. This involves building understanding and a community response approach to end gender-based violence. Also, by building capacities and income generating skills of IDPs and grassroots women in the hearts of violent Conflict. The initiatives I lead are meant to address those structural inequalities that continue to hinder women's effective participation in peace building. This includes especially economic dependence (or poverty), patriarchy or related trauma and human rights violations that reduce women to less of humans and silence their voices on peace and Security or scare/take them away from the peace table. I want a community of women and girls who do not go to the peace table from the point of vulnerability. Women and girls who face these spaces with the strength of womanhood and the conviction that peace processes are only sustainable when women are effectively involved – not the ‘mix-and-stir’ approach.”

HOFNA has thus been working to influence the implementation of UNSCR1325 from the remotest of communities - working with women who influence this resolution even when they are not aware of its existence. Our works are meant to connect these grassroots perspectives and actions to global trends like the UNSCR1325.

HOFNA partnerships and projects
Since creation, HOFNA has been engaged in several independent projects. The convincing nature of the projects executed  have over time attracted a good number of partners amonths them, the United States Embassy Yaounde, European Union, The German Embassy Yaounde and over a dozen local organisations.
With the United States Embassy, in 2016 HOFNA was able to assemble over 100 youths from all ten regions of Cameroon for a peace and security workshop in Bamenda. This project and others with the embassy received applause from across the nation.

MINEPAT  through their sub program to alleviate poverty at the base accompained HOFNA in agriculture in the farming of water melon and IRISH potatoes as a way to engage youth and women in sustainable Agriculture best practices for income generation,  while shifting mindsets of young people from looking at Agriculture as dirty or meant for the rural poor and regarding it as an engine to drive them out of unemployment,  poverty, radicalization and violent extremism.

As part of her Agriculture initiatives,  HOFNA currently owns a green house and coffee nursery  in Donga mantung Division as part of the European  Union Cameroon government  initiative (PAPA Project) to revamp the coffee sector in Cameroon. Though currently affected by the ongoing crisis, the nursery has the capacity to enable HOFNA grow 80 000 coffee seedlings in a year, a great source of income for the organisation and a sustainable route for economic growth for the women HOFNA serves.  The progress and success of this project was outstanding and promising eventhough the current crisis has prevented hundreds of women who earned a living from the project from doing so.

The POWER porject was realised with the support of the German Embassy in Yaounde. The project has reached out to over 200 grassroot women leaders in the NW and SW Regions of Cameroon.

The ongoing Initiative of HOFNA . - National Initiative to End Violence against women and girls (NITE-VAWg)builds on the realizations and foundation of the POWER project and
 will engage 600 grassroots women leaders from across the country on response to and prevent of GBV as well as engage women in running local initiatives to enhance the realization of the UNSCR1325 in Cameroon.

HOFNA and the Coronavirus COVID-19 Pandemic

Like many other organisations, HOFNA is concerned with the novel COVID-19 pandemic. The association has rolled out a comprehensive plan for the communities. “This period with the COVID-19 has proven to us that much more still needs to be done to address deep rooted issues of gender-based violence in homes and communities.  While the world is asleep, some women have remained punching bags of some men while issues of rape become more likely. We also understand that most of the words used during these times do not resonate with a typical grassroots woman in my community. Words such as quarantine, social distancing or even the virus itself.”

“So our initiatives have been around educating and sensitizing the communities (in pidgin English and dialects) on what the virus is and how to protect themselves and others. We ran an a session with 25 IDP women and teenage mothers in the North West region, where they were trained on how to produce soap and provided basic start up materials. The women were also trained on proper handwashing and other hygiene and sanitation tips meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The skills acquired by these women will enable them produce soap for themselves that will improve their state of hygiene or produce the soap to sell to their communities and generate income for themselves. These are skills that will not leave them, even after the pandemic. We have equally provided some 30 liters the community to facilitate hand washing as well as educate them on what social distancing entail. We understand how challenging it can be to prevent these women (most of whom are petit traders) from going to the market as they mostly live on less than 300 francs a day, made from their sales. Our role is to keep them and their communities safe while the build on their economic power or generate income for themselves and families. We have been donating face masks as well as educating them on its use.

HOFNA believes that It is always the responsibility of all to put an end to every form of violence against women and girls . Even if the world is asleep because of COVID-19, everyone needs to live a life of dignity, free of violence of any sort. The organization has continued to use the radio Program (Engage) that was initiated in 2018 to raise awareness on GBV and to facilitate reporting of cases of GBV.

“We understand that what is killing some women/girls in remote/patriarchal societies like ours is not only COVID-19. It is battering, it is unappreciated services, it is lack of affection, it is mental health issues and burdens in their hearts that they never get to talk about! We work to provide safe spaces where every woman and girl in the communities can call us, and share their pain, dreams, hopes and aspirations and we intervene in addressing her need or concern.”

The future for HOFNA

On what future for HOFNA, Christelle Bay says “To make this sustainable, HOFNA is working on organizing the National Women Peace and Security Conference in Cameroon in the days ahead (after COVID-19 must have been dealt with). Supported by the German Mission to Cameroon, our Initiative under our National Initiative to End Violence Against Women and Girls (NITE-VAWg) is meant to bring grassroots women leaders from all ten regions of Cameroon, female mayors, women leaders of faith based organizations and other grassroots women influencers, to develop what we call Local Action Plans for the implementation of UNSCR1325 in Cameroon. This is meant to support progress made by MINPROFF - supporting the realization of Cameroon's National Action Plan to UNSCR1325. The women will identify what they believe women, peace and Security needs to look like in their different communities and propose concrete ways to realize that.”

“We hope to continue to transform mindsets around women rights through our community radio Program (ENGAGE), but then, in the days ahead (prior to our National conference in November), we will train 100 internally displaced women and teenage mothers on producing soap and bleach, beaded slippers and sandals, and reusable sanitary pads. We will also be training them on the fundamentals of starting and running a business and will provide them with basic start up materials. These workshops will be accompanied by women’s human rights workshops and setting up of a community response system to end gender based violence as well as facilitate reporting of cases. These form part of our peace building process and implementation of UNSCR1325 in Cameroon based on how these women conceptualize peace.” She adds

Article first Published by The Guardian Post Daily in Cameroon on Thursday April 16, 2020

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