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Cybersecurity: Analysing women, peace and security in Cameroon

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National policy loopholes in the WPS NAPS and cyber legislation have left women-led organisations and female peacebuilders, particularly in the conflict-affected Anglophone and Far North regions of Cameroon, vulnerable to online exploitation.– Picture: Emmanuel Berrod / WIPO

By Lynda Leogah Forkwa

It has been seven years since the inception of the National Action Plans (NAP) for the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda in Cameroon, and it has catalysed the rise of women-led organisations, igniting a drive to engage in peacebuilding. In an age where efforts to end violent conflict and build peace have become increasingly digitised, women peacebuilders in Cameroon find themselves treading challenging waters that transcend the physical realities of conflict into cyberspace.

While the digital era holds a wealth of opportunities for peace-related processes to thrive, along with these empowering tools comes a pending and often overlooked frontier of vulnerability—cyber ills. Such a security loophole questions the effectiveness of cyber legislation and the scope of the WPS NAP that have been present in Cameroon since 2010 and 2017 respectively.

The African Union’s 2024 focal theme: ‘Educating an African fit for the 21st Century’, stresses the need to develop resilient education systems that enhance access to inclusive, continuous, quality education across Africa, with a special emphasis on foundational literacy and STEM fields. In light of this, the study takes a second look into the WPS NAP and Cameroon’s cyber legislation; emphasising the need for cybersecurity literacy and cyber protection for women championing the cause for peace in the digital era.

‘Darkside’ of Cyberspace for Women Peacebuilders

Cameroon’s peace efforts are marked by the bravery of women striving for sustainable peace given the severity and compounding nature of the crisis landscape. Peacebuilding initiatives often rely largely on digital platforms for maximum impact. Notable examples include the use of video conferencing and social media platforms to expose perpetrators of gross human rights violations and implement advocacy and activism campaigns, including the women’s landmark conference for peace in Cameroon.

However, digital peacebuilding also comes with a ‘dark side’. A virtual call organised by Defyhatenow Cameroon on International Women’s Day in 2023 brought together close to 50 women-led organisations, who all voiced concerns about the prevailing challenges that undermine peacebuilding endeavours in online spaces. With a longstanding patriarchal system, women’s engagement in peacebuilding processes in Cameroon leaves them, by default, susceptible to digital perils. This situation which is further exacerbated by cyber illiteracy and weak cyber laws heightens the potential to undermine women’s safety and the efficacy of the WPS agenda.

National policy loopholes in the WPS NAPS and cyber legislation have left women-led organisations and female peacebuilders, particularly in the conflict-affected Anglophone and Far North regions of Cameroon, vulnerable to online exploitation.

The current state of the WPS Agenda

In simple terms, the WPS agenda focuses on the promotion and protection of women’s rights while advancing a gender transformative lens across the lifespan of a conflict. Cameroon’s elapsed first generation NAP (2018 – 2020) document clearly outlined areas of intervention. This includes clauses that amplify women’s voices and condemns hurtful practices that target women physically in conflict settings.

The words ‘cyber threats’, ‘online’ or ‘cybersecurity’ are neither mentioned in the international WPS agenda nor in the Cameroon NAP. As a result, the framework inadvertently leaves women and women-led organisations vulnerable to cyber intruders. Sophie Ngassa, a local peacebuilder, affirms the online backlash women peacebuilders face including online harassment, hate speech, digital violence, surveillance and internet shutdowns, among others. Presently, very little effort is made to shield women peacebuilders from digital risks.

Cyber Legislation in Cameroon

Cameroon’s Cybersecurity and Cybercrime Law of 2010 comprises comprehensive legislation covering criminal activities online, procedural aspects, and avenues for international cooperation. The Law details a range of cyber offences from unauthorised access to fraud to provisions against child exploitation online. Furthermore, the establishment of a National Computer Emergency Response Team and National Agency for Information and Communication (ANTIC) signifies Cameroon’s steps toward bolstering its cybersecurity infrastructure.

However, while the law was primarily enacted to address online communication, election fraud and e-commerce, public belief is that its true intent is more aligned with monitoring and curbing the growing terrorist threats in the Far North Region of the country. As a result, its effectiveness in protecting women’s online welfare is increasingly uncertain.

Limited reports of trials or arrests for cybercrimes against women suggest that the law may not adequately cover or prioritise women’s issues in cyberspace. This lack of attention highlights a critical gap in Cameroon’s legal framework concerning the safety and security of women online.

National policy loopholes in the WPS NAPS and cyber legislation have left women-led organisations and female peacebuilders, particularly in the conflict-affected Anglophone and Far North regions of Cameroon, vulnerable to online exploitation. Insufficient cyber knowledge is not mere inconvenience; it is a perilous gap.

It exposes peacebuilders to misinformation, digital surveillance, and harassment. Ignorance about cyber hygiene and safe online practices can culminate in breaches, compromising both personal and organisational integrity, hastening women’s withdrawal from peace activities. Closing this gap is not optional; it is a crucial step towards comprehensive security for peacebuilders.

[…] CSOs could enhance cyber literacy by embedding cybersecurity awareness into all aspects of peace programmes including developing organisational security policy measures.

Safeguarding the Future of Peacebuilding

The agency of women and cybersecurity awareness in Cameroon is not completely blank. A lot can be learned and adopted from the works of digital and human rights organisations like Internews and Defend Defenders in eradicating cyber threats against women in sub-Saharan Africa.

These organisations have been offering cybersecurity education and psychosocial support to women representatives in diverse fields. Such efforts have filled the void created by archaic and weak national policies to an extent.

While a handful of women-led organisations and individuals can boast of an advanced knowledge of cybersecurity in Cameroon, the majority lack a basic understanding of how to manage an online presence.

The AU directive on incorporating foundational literacy of cybersecurity is a wakeup call for policymakers, and civil society organisations (CSOs) in Cameroon to do three things.

First, to ensure that the next generation of the WPS NAPs extends the scope of women’s security beyond the physical to include digital threats such as online gender-based violence (OGBV), cyber stalking, and sexual harassment and revenge porn. This provides an international legal backing and additional security for women in the field.

Second, CSOs could enhance cyber literacy by embedding cybersecurity awareness into all aspects of peace programmes including developing organisational security policy measures. Partnering with international digital organisations with extensive knowledge of women activities in conflict settings holds immense potential for unlocking a generation of tech savvy peacebuilders.

This fortification of skills cultivates a proactive stance against cyber incursions and builds a resilient community of women peacebuilders that can maintain operational security while championing peace initiatives.

Third, crafting a cybersecurity law focusing on the protection of women’s digital presence is imperative. This view is supported by several organisations including Dr Zoneziwoh – Executive Director of Women for a Change Cameroon (WFAC). Such legislation should account for the unique risks faced by female peacebuilders and ensure a safe environment for their crucial work.

The advancement of women in peacebuilding and their digital empowerment in Cameroon reflects the broader AU goal of educating an African citizenry equipped for the 21st century. As Cameroon continues to harness the potential of the digital era for peace and security, policies must evolve to protect the women leading these efforts.

Emphasising cyber literacy and legislation tailored to women’s needs in the digital space is not only essential but a strategic imperative.

By strengthening cybersecurity within the WPS NAPs, Cameroon can create a resilient foundation for women peacebuilders to flourish safely and effectively. The online world represents a critical battlefield in the fight for peace and security; preparing and shielding those on its frontlines should be a top priority as the country moves forward.

Lynda Leogah Forkwa is an African Union Scholar, and serves as a Junior Research Fellow at the African Centre for Constructive Resolution of Disputes.

This article was first published on ACCORD