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Opinion: 'Being a journalist marks me with a bull's eye'

December 10, 2020

What if you are a striving woman journalist in a country like Cameroon where patriarchy is the norm? Mimi Mefo knows what it's like.

Image: Marco Longari/AFP/Getty Images

As a woman, I share a close affinity with all women around the globe, who suffer from at least one form of violence in their lifetime. If I were to go by the United Nations’ view that women who have lesser formal education are more susceptible than their educated peers, I would be counting myself lucky, considering that I have had some degree of formal education. Sadly enough, though, my experience tells me something far removed from the UN's assumption. As a female journalist who has worked in a conflict-torn country where patriarchy is evident in every fabric of society, I know for sure that educational attainment does little to protect women. If anything, being a journalist marks me with a bull’s eye.  

A woman born in Cameroon is more likely than other women in other parts of the world, to suffer from Female Genital Mutilation and/or Breast Ironing. I have watched in dismay as women disproportionately suffer from all forms of physical and sexual violence especially since the start of the ongoing conflict that has engulfed large portions of Cameroon. So far, the data shows that levels of educational attainment might not be a barrier to anyone being subjected to violence. When I saw for example the brutal torture and murder of the prison officer Florence Ayafor, or the recent hacking of Confort Tumassang in Muyuka, I had the sober realization that these were symptomatic of the level of violence suffered by women across all conflicts, and that educational attainment made little difference. 
Journalists may not always suffer physical violence during conflict, but they live with the horrors of the conflict at every twist and turn. For instance, uncensored stories and images of rape, torture and all forms of violence find their way into my mailbox almost daily. The victims expect me to report their plight to the world in a manner that exposes the problem but protects their identity. That is one of the reasons why I became a journalist.

Kamerun Buea - Unruhen
The Anglophone Crisis in Cameroon has turned into an armed conflict in 2017 and didn´t stop erversince Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Huguet

Most days I deal with constant harassment
But how do I or any female journalist go about achieving this task, when cyberbullying is as constant a phenomenon, as the many stories of violence against us. This is an area I happen to have an experience or two in. As if it is not bad enough that I wake up in the morning and find my face splashed across newspapers and social media sites, with messages strong enough to make you wonder, where this hatred comes from, I have to go through most days dealing with constant harassment in the form of comments on social media posts, or even direct messages sent into my inbox.

The fallacy of ad hominem seems to find its best expression in individuals reacting to female journalists. It is always about their person, their look, their personal lives and never about their work.  When I get messages like “you should be married instead of coming on here to present the news”, “You will never step foot in Cameroon, because we will get to you”, I realise just how much my personal safety is in jeopardy because of my work. This is probably a function of the society in which we were born and raised. For instance, when I covered stories in places such as Mbalangi where the population had fled, or Menka where dozens had been brutally murdered, the first reaction from most persons was to question why a man had not been sent on such a dangerous task. 

Kamerun Nationaler Dialog in Yaounde
"Patriarchy runs in the DNA of Cameroon"Image: Getty Images/AFP/Str

Either be a mediocre journalist or take the bullet

Paradoxically, this does not end with the general public, given that harassment and sexism are also present within the newsroomand seems to stem directly from this cavalier perception of women that has its roots in the family. There appears to be an unwritten code that female journalists investigating a major story or seeking that big interview, ought to give in to the whims and caprices of sexual predators prowling the corridors of power. Sadly enough, what this means for most women who enter the field of journalism with big dreams of crashing the glass ceiling and leaving their marks on the media landscape, is that they are perpetually in catch-22 situations. 

Either they avoid taking up the big tasks and as such avoid harassment, thereby remaining mediocre, or take the plunge but maintain their integrity, which leaves them susceptible to little or no opportunities, condemning even the most brilliant female journalist to the realm of mediocrity. Countless are the times when I have been called “rude” or “aggressive”, simply because I insisted that professionalism ought to prevail in my encounters. 

Kamerun Journalistin Mimi Mefo
Cameroonian journalist Mimi MefoImage: Mimi Mefo

No hiding place for female journalists

The prevalence of sex discrimination in the workplace means that female journalists effectively have no hiding place. When even male colleagues assume that their female counterparts got a story because they are a woman or outrightly ask them to use ‘woman power’ to assist them, the problem becomes insurmountable for the female journalist. 
It is already hard enough that as women, female journalists are among those condemned to suffer from physical or sexual violence, but it is much harder that in a profession which is all about holding power to account, we still struggle to find a safe place to get our voices heard and tell the stories that matter in the lives of so many.