FEATURE

WILPF Cameroon has trained women and youths as call operators and election observers in order to monitor the 2020 Legislative and Municipal elections. The initiative is known as the Women’s Situation Room Call Center. We asked independent Cameroonian journalist Irene Z. Fon to visit the call center during the election day on 9 February 2020.

By Irene Z. Fon

At the Women’s Situation Room Call Center in Yaoundé, Cameroon, call operators receive information from election observers in the field as well as electors and citizens, before, during and after the elections.

Callers from anywhere in the Country call a toll free number (8243) or 659328220 for confidential calls, to talk with a call operator in English, French, Pidgin or Fulfulde (a language mostly spoken in the Northern regions of Cameroon).

The call operators channel the calls to the Data Analyses Room, where specialists in different domains verify the information, before sending with recommendations to experts in the Response Room for solutions or reactions.

Building on the success from 2018

The call center initiative by WILPF Cameroon first took place during the 2018 Presidential elections; during which call operators and election observers alike put the idea to the test.

During the 2018 elections, Aeisatu Bouba was an election observer for WILPF placed at the Government High School in Essos, Yaoundé (which was host to a polling station), when a representative of a political party felt that he needed to be informed of everything happening there.

Bouba says the President of the polling station asked the Politician to stay calm and then suddenly they started quarreling. This led to a confict situation that affected the voters who came to vote, she says.

She called the Women’s Situation Room Call Center, which intervened by calling the authorities to go make sure there was order at the polling station.

“Within a few minutes, we had the intervention of the forces of law and order who arrived and the situation came back into order,” says Bouba.

After the police arrived and explained to the Politician what his role was, he became calm. That experience made Bouba happy for having prevented violence from escalating during elections.

“I felt that if I didn’t call and the police didn’t intervene, it could have generated into violence,” she says. “By calling, I prevented conflicts at that moment and it was my own part to play to see that peace reigns during the electoral process.”

Guy Blaise Feugap, who was a call operator, then, received Bouba’s call to the center.

He says since it was a case of physical violence, he reacted by calling the police on 117, who sent officers to the location to calm down the situation. He later called the observer to make sure that the conflict has been resolved.

From analyses to quick response

(Photo credit: Irene Z. Fon)

During the 2020 elections in Cameroon, Feugap is the Programme Director, in charge of the technical aspects of the project. He works closely with specialists at the Analyses Room, to which call operators send information received from callers, for analyses and validation.

In the Analyses Room, specialists in different fields including gender, youths, human rights, peace and security, verify the information received before forwarding the case to the Response Room for solutions or reaction.

They work in partnership with another organisation, Women’s Advocacy and Communication Network (WANET), which helps them create an online platform through which election observers in the field and call operators at the call center send information to the Analyses Room.

WILPF Cameroon has  local 160 election observers based in the field of all ten regions of Cameroon. These send information to the Women’s Situation Room Call Center, thanks to a platform WILPF Cameroon created already back in 2016 with other civil society organisations.

Women and youth working to build peace

The call center was created to promote women’s participation in the peace building process in Cameroon. With Cameroon having security challenges such as the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northern regions and the Anglophone Crises in the Northwest and Southwest regions, WILPF Cameroon thought it was important for women to be part of the solution.

Considering the fight against violence to be all-inclusive, they include youths in the project, who are trained alongside women. In advance of the elections, WILPF Cameroon also ran a social media campaign aiming at preventing hate speech, which they say often leads to violence.

The Women’s Situation Room Call Center helps especially women to be a part of the electoral process, and prevent violence during elections. Besides sensitising women on the electoral procedure, the project also addresses violence particular to women during elections. Based on the information they gather from the field, WILPF Cameroon makes recommendations to authorities on how to improve the electoral process. The initiative also creates room for collaboration, to improve the peace building process in Cameroon.

First of all, the Women’s Situation Room comes in as the Participation and Prevention pillar, which gives women (and youths) a leading role in conducting peaceful elections and promoting peace building in general, says WILPF Cameroon President, Sylvie Ndongmo.

Contributing to change

(Photo credit: Irene Z. Fon)

Laura Ljang is one of the women who were trained by WILPF Cameroon to take part in the 2020 elections as a call operator. She was sent to represent Local Youth Corner, a civil society NGO working against violent extremism among youths and ensuring that violent offenders are included in the development process.

She says she was inspired to be part of the team of call operators because the project has a call for women’s rights and it has to do with the electoral process.

“My belonging to the team is to contribute to the peace and security of the electoral process,” says Ijang.

Through her participation, she sees a situation whereby Cameroons would have more knowledge on elections and the electoral process.

As a call operator, her ability to direct those who do not know their polling stations to the Elections governing body, ELECAM and to sensitise electors on their rights to vote makes her feel useful.

“I feel useful by contributing, listening to those calling and proposing solutions at my level,” she says.

With regards to preventing violence, the project includes youths in a bid to address the recurrence of hate speech, which affects peace.

“We believe it is wise to build a movement of not just women but also youths, so that we have a movement of people fighting hate speech and contributing to peace building,” says Ndongmo.

Bringing votes to the polls

Yves Tieumena is a male member of WILPF Cameroon, who signed up for the project because he believes that an issue of peace and security concerns everyone. He thinks the Call Center is a great initiative because elections are most often fuelled by violence and women and youths are most affected by the violence.

Three days before the 2020 elections, he tells he had the chance to comfort a caller from Bamenda (a town in the crises-hit Northwest region), who was not sure about going out to vote, for security reasons.

He advised the caller to be calm and then monitor the environment – if favorable, he could go and vote; otherwise, he should stay back to be sure of his safety.

The call operators were trained to be like “Doctors”, says Ndongmo.

“The way they receive the calls can already be of great help to the callers, because many people call to ask for advice or because they feel threatened.”

Training women on electoral processes

Besides sensitising women on the electoral procedure, the project also addresses violence peculiar to women during elections.

Through the Women’s Situation Room, WILPF Cameroon helps women to better understand the electoral process.

They have had cases of many women in some communities who cannot read and therefore consequently do not know how to find their names when they reach a polling station. In a few of such instances, Ndongmo says the women were not received but were rather bullied, which made them feel frustrated.

So WILPF Cameroon organises community meetings during which women are trained on the electoral process.

“We have been able to use the community meetings to have more women register on electoral votes, withdraw their cards and go to vote,” she says.

While educating the women on exercising their civic rights, WILPF Cameroon also stress on the importance for their participation to be non-violent.

“We let them know that they should sensitise people in their communities on the need to take peaceful action,” says Ndongmo. “After all the community meetings, they become peace ambassadors.”

In training monitors on electoral violence, WILPF also educates the women on the specific kinds of violence that come with the elections. They believe that when the women are aware of these, they can take the necessary measures to educate their communities, their peers and even themselves.

One of such cases of electoral violence on women, which Ndongmo says they have witnessed, is when women are not allowed to vote on a different candidate apart from their husband.

Gladys Viban, a team member of the Women’s Situation Room (specifically at the Response Room), says women are gradually being taken into consideration because this project looks at violence not just in the field but also violence that pertain to women.

“The fact that WILPF Cameroon has a crises line that women can actually call into outside of the elections is good, because it helps us to also address other issues that concern women,” she says.

Improving future electoral processes

Based on the information they gather from the field, WILPF Cameroon makes recommendations to the authorities on how to improve the electoral process. The initiative also creates room for collaboration, to improve the peace building process in Cameroon.

As trained monitors and observers, participants report incidences and factors driven by conflict, which WILPF Cameroon compiles into a report that is made public in order to draw the attention of the community and authorities.

“To me it has been very exciting to be part of the Call Center; its like you have your pulse on something happening on the ground, even when you’re not there,” says Viban.

She says the project equally helps to know the level of participation and engagement of citizens, vis-à-vis the electoral process.

“I think that in the long run, it gives us a better understanding of whether the elections are actually fair or not; whether citizens actually participate or not; whether the institutions have put in place what we actually require to have free and fair elections or not,” says Viban.

In the process of WILPF Cameroon making recommendations for an improved electoral process, they open up for collaboration opportunities with the government and other civil society organisations.

On the day of the elections, a National Election Observer (charged with monitoring the elections throughout the Country), Chemuta Divine Banda, also head of the National Commission on Human Rights and Freedom, visited the Women`s Situation Room Call Center.

He thinks that this approach of collecting information live is very useful.

“It will certainly contribute towards making the society more sensitive to the fact that what they do before and during the elections, is carefully watched,” he says and concludes:

“People would be more prudent and they will try to avoid the use of violence, the use of fraud during elections.”