Esther Omam | Cameroon
“This award is a reaffirmation of the value of the concept of ‘Leave no one behind’. That humanity, more than ever before, should always come first. That our diversity is our bond and that, with pluralism, everyone can have a voice. This award symbolizes all that I fight for as a woman, a peacebuilder, and a leader in Cameroon, a country where the acceptance of our diversity and plurality can be a solution to our plight”Esther Omam
Women peacemakers, local council authorities, local residents, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled their homes amidst Cameroon’s Anglophone crisis sit at tables arranged in a circle. In a village in the South West region of Cameroon, Esther Omam’s non-governmental organization, Reach Out Cameroon, has brought these participants together to address the various challenges they face. They discuss tensions between host community residents and IDPs, women and girls forced into early marriage and support for the most vulnerable community members. Esther listens carefully before helping the participants outline the steps to bring their concerns to the chief. The dialogue lasts for hours and is accompanied by the distribution of donated clothing and a visit from Reach Out’s mobile ophthalmology clinic. This initiative is one of the myriad ways Esther, an award-winning peacebuilder, mediator and human rights defender, is fostering a culture of peace in Cameroon.
The Anglophone crisis began in 2016 when Cameroon’s Anglophone minority began protesting against the marginalization they were experiencing in the majority Francophone country. Since 2017, the country has seen an escalation of violence between government forces and non-state armed groups who are demanding secession of the Anglophone North West and South West regions from the Republic of Cameroon. The civil war has claimed the lives of more than 6,000 people, led to the internal displacement of over a million people, and left 4.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance.
Esther Omam founded Reach Out Cameroon in 1996 to support vulnerable populations in underserved communities during the HIV epidemic. In response to the Anglophone crisis, she shifted focus to integrate humanitarian programming. Today, the organization has served over 1,700,000 people in hundreds of remote communities, some of them still untouched by any other organization. As the Anglophone crisis intensified, Esther incorporated peacebuilding into her approach, mobilizing and empowering women and youth to contribute to ending the conflict. Her impact is expansive, ranging from coordinating the first civilian action that denounced the violence, to facilitating the participation of women in local and national dialogues for peace, to opening “Esther’s Brave Space”, a peace house that offers temporary accommodation and counselling for survivors of gender-based violence. She has brought together thousands of women through peaceful protests and conventions to collectively demand an end to violence.
Even in the face of great personal danger, Esther continues to champion pluralism by improving the lives of women and children, strengthening communities and uniting a wide range of voices for peace and social cohesion in Cameroon.