YAOUNDE - A new study confirms rape has become a weapon of war in Cameroon's separatist conflict, and many victims are terminating pregnancies with crude, unsafe abortion techniques.
Sixteen-year-old Mercy Azefor says she was raped in Nkambe while hiding on her mother's farm after her parents were killed in April 2018. Nkambe is in the Northwest region, one of two areas where English-speaking separatist groups are fighting to break away from Cameroon and its French-speaking majority.
Azefor says a family running from the fighting drove her to Yaounde. There, she met pastor Grace Mbegno of Divine Redemption Ministries, who took her in.
Two months ago, Azefor gave birth to a baby girl.
"I gave her the name Gracious because she is all that I have," Azefor said. "I do not want her to go through what I went through. She will certainly have good education and help others tomorrow. She knows no other father than God who created her."
A Cameroonian nonprofit group, the Rural Women Center for Education and Development, is keeping track of at least 300 school-age girls from the Northwest region who became pregnant as a result of rape, either from suspected separatist fighters or government soldiers.
Vera Wirsiy, coordinator of the center, says the group was motivated to carry out the study after a 14-year-old rape victim came to a hospital in the Northwest town of Ndop and asked that her six-month pregnancy be terminated.
"The young girl came to do an abortion," Wirsiy said. "The medical personnel tried to find out what happened. She told him the community is not safe, gunshots, her grandmother is not able to take care of her. The guy impregnated her and ran."
Wirsiy said at least 130 of the 300 girls they met had already had abortions, with some using crude traditional means that endanger their lives.
Panje Roland of Cameroon's Ministry of Women Empowerment said many more women and girls in the Northwest and Southwest regions have been victims of sexual exploitation, but it is difficult to know their numbers because many are hiding.
'Weapon of war'
In December, Allegra Baiocchi, coordinator of the U.N. system in Cameroon, called for the protection of women and girls in the war zone and a stop to what she called humiliating practices.
"We know that rape is today a weapon of war and many women, thousands of women, have had to flee and are today even more vulnerable to sexual abuse," she said.
A report last year by rights group Amnesty International criticized both the Cameroon military and separatists for abuses of civilians.
In October, the government of Cameroon said it had opened investigations into reports of police and soldiers raping teenage girls and young women.