Boycotts, protests, towns burned to the ground.
Hundreds of deaths, and hundreds of thousands displaced.
Separatists, militia, and journalists impinged by an authoritarian presidency.
The struggle for power in Cameroon is one of majority and minority, French-speaking and English. President Biya’s 38th year in office is marked by another year of infighting prompted by the marginalization of the English-speaking population seeking their own state. And among those reporting, emerges a struggle between men, women, and their vastly different newsroom experiences.
Cameroonian journalists are being threatened, attacked, and jailed if their news reports on abuses from the French-speaking population or military. With freedom of the press dwindling, journalists are forced to reconsider what they will publish, how to remain safe on the job, and who they can trust is working in their best interest.
These are obstacles Cameroonian women in media have always had to consider when they chose their profession.
Journalists Comfort Mussa and Amy Banda are Cameroonian journalists whose imaginations do not have to venture far when asked about workplace harassment.
Women are told they will be treated differently from a young age–and the stakes only increase with time. The teachers need the big, strong boys to help move the chairs across the classroom. Young ladies must not wear shirts that dip too low or skirts that sit too high. Women must clutch keys between knuckles and accessorize with pepper spray to avoid sexual assault.
But when these women who have made a career of excusing this hostility can thrive despite the constant interruptions, there is unrest.
Misogynistic hate speech.
Sexual advances in exchange for promotion.
Physical and sexual assault threats.
Physical and sexual assault.
This has been the reality of women in journalism in Cameroon for years. Now, political propaganda– and the consequences of failing to deliver–looms over their head too.
“In a patriarchal society, to have a voice, and to speak up for yourself, is a threat to many people,” Mussa says.
Mussa, who has worked in Cameroon’s public and private news companies, is now a freelance journalist. She says the difference between the way male and female journalists were treated in her studios was, “very glaring.”
“They envy you for nothing,” says Banda, who once left a studio after her editors consistently critiqued her story segments, but were satisfied when her male colleagues duplicated them upon her departure.
Mussa also had to grapple with stories she felt deserved being told, but would not make it to primetime news due to editors’ executive decisions. After being relegated to lifestyle and horoscope stories, Mussa decided she would not fold into the corner they tried to establish for her as a “female” journalist.
Mussa says women should not let their newsrooms tell them what they can or cannot do.
“If [journalism] is what they have chosen to do, they should make it count,” Mussa says. “They should not wait for people to give them permission.”
Mussa dug her heels in and began a blog. She told the stories she could not share in mainstream media, and it grew so popular, women sought her out in hopes that she would report on the issues flying under the radar.
“With time, I discovered the exhaustion of having to tell every woman’s story,” Mussa says.
It was then that she had the idea to create Sisterspeak237. The name, she says, is an homage to every woman in Cameroon’s area code.
“Sister is, for me, every woman.”
Cameroonian women share their womanhood and may share some struggles, but Mussa stresses that they are not a homogenous group.
“I couldn’t tell everybody’s story, but I could train other women to tell their stories.”
Sisterspeak237 also advocates against rampant sexual harassment within media rooms in Cameroon. Mussa said it provides women with a chance to have female mentors when one’s gender dictates their career trajectory rather than their professionalism.
“How do you know how to respond when the boss tells you that you need to wear a miniskirt to go meet and interview a particular guest?” Mussa says, “These are questions that younger female colleagues have asked me.”
Sisterspeak237 moved beyond discussion and put pen to paper. They addressed letters to journalism professors, press publications, and media managers, outlining the kinds of sexual harassment they would no longer stand for.
Suggestive notes and emails.
Sexual images on posters in the workplace.
Sexual comments about a woman’s appearance.
Touching, pinching, rubbing, and brushing against women.
Offensive comments about sexual orientation or gender.
Coercing subordinates into sex for promotion or favourable standing.
These are the battles women are facing in their own workspace—not to mention the obstructions when they enter the field or make their way home from a day of work.
On one hand, they are scrutinized for their body.
From trolls scandalizing histories of past romantic and sexual partners, to hacking personal accounts, and a policing of the body she does not see with her male colleagues, Mussa knows a female journalist is never just being examined for her job.
On the other hand, women are threatened by sexual assault and other acts of violence.
Mussa has had to relocate due to threats she has received, which she says is a common story among the women she works with.
Despite all this, Mussa does not back down, and neither do her colleagues.
“I believe in the power of stories to build positive change,” says Mussa.
Mussa has had to excuse herself from covering stories because of the risk involved, but most times, they take the chance so marginalized voices can be heard.
“The importance of your story sometimes outweighs the risk. We look at why that story must be told, why it is important.”
Since Mussa has transitioned to freelance, she acknowledges she has the privilege of deciding what to report on.
As this is not the case for every female journalist, Sisterspeak237 emphasizes caution during their training so women can tell stories effectively, without putting themselves in danger.
“We’re learning and gaining tools that help us navigate the terrain in which we are because we have to tell these stories. And also, we need to stay alive while doing it.”
Mussa says Sisterspeak237 is about finding voices and breaking the silence.
The beauty of this network of women is that its inception is rooted in resistance. Power reverberates from the refusal to let patriarchal barriers dictate their stories and their future.
One can only hope that with this surge in power, an increase in safety will follow.
Banda has been robbed from the backseat of her taxi, and dropped off in front of a church only to have 550 francs stolen, along with her identification, glasses, professional card, and everything else her bag held.
Despite this, Banda says, “Most of their arrows don’t get to me.”
Even during a bilingual broadcast where her French-speaking co-host tried to overtake her talking points, Banda stood her ground for the sake of her country’s two official languages.
It is the tendency, she says, for segments to relay more information in French than English. Banda refuses to prioritize Francophones over Anglophones. She emphasizes that Cameroon is for the French and the English, so it is important to report it as so.
“Equity and equality mean so much to me.”
While male and female journalists alike are being threatened for political reporting, the women acknowledge their gender yields another layer of conflict.
They continue to move forward anyway.
“Stand your ground. You must know who you are,” Banda says. “And you must choose intentionally not to settle for less.”
Mussa says she has been fascinated by words and stories since she was a child, so journalism seemed like the perfect fit. Despite quickly catching on to how the industry does not favour her, she says she has never had the urge to quit journalism.
“Being a woman who is vocal and has the tools to tell stories is a lot of power,” Mussa says. “I encourage women to use this power for the good of the society.”