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Refugee women from Central Africa and Cameroonian women work together on their farms as part of an income-generating project with JRS. (Bitoumbi Bial Moïse Herve/Jesuit Refugee Service)

Bambari, 11 January 2017 - Reconciliation - understood as the restoration of social cohesion through socio-economic development  - offers the opportunity to gather communities around common projects. All parties are thus involved in activities related to the common good, rather than centred on particular or individual interests. Central to this model of reconciliation is the core value of participation.

By participation we mean a step, or even a process, whereby each person makes a commitment, which is added to all other commitments. As JRS sees it: ‘Taking part in a common project is a sign of reconciliation, as people affected by a conflict are reconciled by becoming capable of taking active part in the life of their communities.

Participation is not just an important value in the process of reconciliation, it is also a political theory of sustainable development. Encouraging collective action throughout the decision-making process of the community can lead to permanent and sustainable social transformation.

It was with this objective in mind that a JRS project started bringing together refugee women from Central Africa and Cameroonian women from the village of Boubara, in the Ketté commune, around income-generating activities. This is all the more pertinent, since the Eastern region which is currently welcoming refugees from Central Africa was one of the least developed areas in Cameroon before the refugee crisis. The massive influx of refugees, with the ensuing competition for resources and job opportunities, which were already scarce, has significantly worsened the socio-economic and cultural situation. Indeed, as has become apparent in our different meetings with refugees, it is particularly important to keep the issue of ‘land’ in mind when dealing with social cohesion.

Refugee populations do not usually have access to farmland, because all plots of land belong to the host population. This problem is often the cause of conflict between the two communities, jeopardising their cohabitation and the desired social harmony.

In this particular case, following advocacy efforts by the team of project with a local woman, one hectare of land by the river was made available to refugee women so that they could plant fruits and leafy vegetables. Local woman decided to take part in this initiative, which contributed to greater social cohesion.

In this activity, JRS supplies all the equipment necessary, including farming tools (hoes, watering cans, crop sprayers), seeds and fertilisers. It also takes care of all practical matters with the leaders of the local communities. As for the women, they organise the work at the nursery garden, planting seedlings and watering them constantly. In the words of one refugee woman, the garden of Boubara II has become the face of a greater social cohesion. In a context of great social difficulties for refugee women, we seek to promote an array of opportunities allowing them to become more independent. Young women deserve a special mention, as in this social and cultural context decisions are usually taken for them, but without them. Protection issues are further aggravated by extreme poverty, and many families in this context are run by women whose cultural background usually deprives them of decision-making power. Their ability to take care of themselves, even in the simplest things, can lead to an inversion of this cultural and religious paradigm.

Income-generating activities are therefore an asset, and a powerful instrument of reconciliation, which aims precisely at recreating right relationships between the refugee women themselves, and between them and their community of origin, and with their host communities, wherever they are. This is why they are so committed when it comes to taking part in a social activity aimed at encouraging the development of the community.

Bitoumbi Bial Moïse Herve, Project Social Coordinator