During this year’s World Mental Health Season and The Day Of The Girl Child, a reflecting on the psychological and emotional welbeing and psychosocial support needs of women and girls in crisis situations is opportune. Informed by data collected in Internally Displaced Person’s (IDPs) slums in Yaoundé in December 2019 and a two months (August and September 2020) investigation in the restive North West and South West Regions of Cameroon, this reflection reveals the repetitive trauma that these women and girls have been subjected to from the scourges of armed conflicts for four years and counting and today exacerbated by the COVID-19 global health pandemic restrictive measures. The sombering experiences of these social vulnerable groups for the past four years include rape and other forms of sexual exploitation and abuse with consequences including unintended pregnancies, infection with STDs and HIV/AIDS, child marriage, kidnapping and adduction, witnessing the butchery of loved ones and kinsmen, destruction of livelihood activities and other properties, restriction from movement, worship and assembly, school closure and others. While trauma from violence, like human heads littering the streets, live butchering and desecration of human bodies especially those of women and girls is obvious, individuals bear a deeper, more profound and detrimental emotional disorders than the obvious.
Observed for the first time on October 10, 1992, the World Mental Health Day (WMHD) is a programme of the World Federation for Mental Health. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) the Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide, with the objectives being to raise awareness of mental health issues around the world, educate communities on the signs and impacts, of mental health conditions, advocate against social stigma, mobilize efforts and funds in support of mental health. The day is celebrated this year 2020 under the theme “Mental Health for All- Greater Investment – Greater Access”.
According to Dr Ingrid Daniels (The President of World Federation for Mental Health), “The current worldwide pandemic arose against an already dire mental health landscape that saw mental health conditions on the rise across the globe”. World bank group (2020) estimates that “At least 10% of the world’s population is affected, and that 20% of children and adolescents suffer from some type of mental disorder”, with numbers rising approximately to one in five people (22.1) in countries affected by fragility, conflicts or violence. WHO (2019) contends that “mental health conditions in conflict situations are much more widespread than we thought”.
In like manner, the day of the girl child this year celebrated under the theme “My Voice, Our Equal Future”. Together with the Generation Equality campaign and movement for bold action on gender equality launched in early 2020, the commemoration of 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the global agenda for advancing the rights and empowerment of women and girls, everywhere, 20 years the UNSCR 1325 on women, peace and security which acknowledges the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflicts on women and girls and other commitments, the Psychological and Emotional welbeing of this social vulnerable group cannot continue to be undermined.
Cameroon has been in conflicts since the outbreak of the Boko Haram violent extremism in the Far North, and the Anglophone secessionist revolution in the South and North West Regions since 2014 and 2016, respectively. This situation has been aggravated by the outbreak of the coronavirus, worsening humanitarian situations and having to cope with refugees from neighboring Central African Republic and Nigeria in the Adamawa and East Regions of the country. Women and girls bear the brunt of these crises situations which plumate the already weak state institutions and further render them irresponsive to Gender Based Violence and other needs of socially vulnerable groups.
According to our preliminary findings, known forms of Gender Based Violence in Emergencies (GBVIE) including rape and other harmful practices; and context specific change in gender roles (e.g., digging of graves by women to bury the deaths) have left a great toll of mental disorders such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse and others which are adversely affecting the welbeing of women and girls in this part of the world. Fear, sadness, confusion, withdrawal, sleeplessness, hallucination and other mental health disorders symptoms and signs have affected their ability to work and manage daily stresses, thereby rendering them miserable and wanting to die.
For instance, we met 20 years old Mary in a community health care center who came for post-natal consultation with her 3 months old baby. Mary is an IDP from one of the hotspot villages. She anonymously narrated her ordeal of rape alongside three other girls on the way while fleeing by 3 different groups of men both military and alleged “Amba boys”. Raped twice while fleeing through the bushes, they decided to use the main road hoping the situation would be better. At a check point, they couldn’t present identification papers which they had no time to pick when their community was attacked, three military men took them in the nearby bush and… she sobbed through the rest of her ordeal which ended with the baby she is carrying. Asked if she has shared her story with anyone before, she said she told only the doctor and is afraid of being mocked at if she tells her story. She regrets that she can no longer continue school and fulfill her dreams of becoming a teacher.
We recorded a series of disheartening stories like that of Mary but noticed with dismay that, there are no established safe spaces for these victims to share their stories and build coping mechanisms. These women need safe spaces and not just frameworks. The nonexistence of Social protection systems in Cameroon to fulfill the important function as a political and macroeconomic stabilizer to maintain aggregate demand, reduce inequalities, and cushion the impact of crises on people and the economy particularly on women and girls who bear the brunt of all crises has only worsened the situation of these social vulnerable groups. Political will remains a catalyst for creating quality mental health services and we therefore urge parties to the crisis to lay down their guns and enable technical partner like WHO to create such services to assist those in desperate need of Psychosocial Support.