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Madeleine Afite, a Leading Human Rights Activist in Cameroon

In early March, the world community observes International Women's Day. It's part of a whole month of activities recognizing the work of women in all spheres of life. Among those being honored this year is Madeleine Afite of Cameroon. International human rights groups are critical of Cameroon's record.

Last January, Amnesty International issued a report denouncing what it called the deteriorating situation there. It warned that security forces increasingly use excessive force, killing civilians to stifle anti-government resentment.

One of those fighting for human rights in Cameroon is Madeleine Afite, head the national arm of the Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, ACAT. She also heads a group called the House of Human Rights.

She agrees with Amnesty, which has raised fears that the situation could worsen ahead of elections in 2011. President Paul Biya has served 27 years, and last year he was behind a movement to lift term limits in the constitution.

That move, combined with public anger over price increases, led to riots that killed scores of people. The government put the death toll at 40, but ACAT said government troops killed more than one hundred protesters, "Cameroon is retreating instead of advancing in terms of its human rights record. People are killed every day and the slightest dissent is silenced.

Afite has been advocating human rights for the past two decades, beginning as a student, she says. "I started by writing letters to Amnesty International and that's how I got interested. That's more than 20 years ago and I was especially motivated by what was happening in my country."

She says activists frequently face intimidation, harassment and threats of lawsuits. Recently, the government accused her of feeding Amnesty International what it called false and sensationalist information.

Afite says she is constantly under surveillance. Over the years, her telephone has been bugged and her organization infiltrated by government agents. She has even been summoned by military courts and grilled on her sources and methods:

"They set ablaze our office and send spies to follow us with some disguised as victims of rights abuses. They tail me everywhere I go and destroy our property including vehicles and so on. I am no longer scared because it's been a long time. If I was scared, I should have abandoned this thing a long time ago from all the threats."

She says rights defenders have made some progress. The government has created a department for human rights and a national human rights commission. In 2007, the government also enacted a new penal code rule which stipulates that accused persons are innocent until found guilty.

But Afite says the measures are cosmetic. She is calling on the United Nations and the European Union to pressure the government to respect treaties it has ratified to protect the rights of Cameroonians.

Afite says her biggest problem at the moment is financing. She gets assistance from donors but says the amount is far too small for her needs. She says she is forced to trim fact-finding missions and efforts to fight human rights violations.

Afite says she has no time for herself. Over 20 years ago, she decided to put her work above all else. She stopped going to the movies and nightclubs and rarely visits with family and friends. She says nothing can stop her, and she is determined to fight to the end.