When Maximilienne Ngo Mbe was in her final year of high school in Cameroon, the principal discarded learning materials in a blatant act of sabotaging students’ readiness to succeed in their final exams. It was in the early ‘90s, during an election year, and – as young people often do – Mbe and her fellow students were opposed to their principal’s preferred candidate, President Paul Biya.
If the principal’s action was supposed to intimidate students, it failed. Instead, it ignited a student movement of opposition.
“We got together to discuss what we could do, what action we could take to make it stop,” Mbe said. “On a Monday morning, we organized.”
Mbe continued her activism after high school. In 1991, she decided that she was going to become a human rights defender. She has fearlessly continued her advocacy work for three decades fighting for democracy, workers’ rights, as well as children’s and women’s rights.
Her efforts to advance human rights go beyond the borders of Cameroon. Over the years, she has created partnerships with various organizations that have negotiated ceasefires and sought lasting resolution to armed conflicts in the African continent. Since 2010, Mbe has led the Network of Human Rights Defenders of Central Africa, an organization that unites and supports advocates from the region.
Mbe is one of this year’s recipients of the International Women of Courage Award, given annually by the U.S. Department of State to honor female activists from around the world. Recipients are women who have demonstrated exceptional courage, and leadership in advocating for peace, justice, human rights, gender equality, and women’s empowerment – actions that often come with great sacrifice and risk to them and their families. This year’s awards were hosted virtually due to the pandemic with special remarks delivered by the First Lady, Dr. Jill Biden.
The honorees came from 14 different countries, including three from the African continent. Mbe from Cameroon, Julienne Lusenge from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Zahra Mohamed Ahmad from Somalia, were the three African women honored.
Mbe knows all too well the risk women who try to speak up against injustices take. In addition to her life being under continued threat, her children have not been exempted. For example, they were targeted after she openly questioned the government’s use of violence in disciplining corrupt officials, as well as the use of excessive force in the fight against Boko Haram, the Nigerian terror group, whose fighters often flee to Cameroon.
“They began by threatening my children with kidnap,” Mbe said.
Security forces went to her children’s school and abducted her niece.
“They thought that my niece was my daughter because they are very similar,” Mbe explained. “They raped her and they left her at the edge of town.”
Soon after, Mbe moved her children to France for protection, an action she received criticism for as being influenced by the west.
Lusenge, the activist from the DRC, has been fighting against gender based violence and promoting women’s rights in conflicted regions for more than 40 years. Lusenge, who grew up in a home with a father who valued gender equality, was inspired to begin her advocacy work in order to help other women. Growing up in the DRC, she witnessed the limitations and injustice that women around her experienced.
“When I was young I saw people in villages, women and girls who were submitted to traditional customs and customs that don’t respect human rights,” Lusenge said.
She began her career as a journalist for a local radio station, a job that allowed her to travel around the DRC. In her profession, she was able to highlight the need for more women’s rights and provide a platform for women to use their voices. During the civil war that began in 1998 in the DRC and lasted for five years, Lusenge used her journalistic experience to document injustices against women in order to be used to prosecute offenders.
In 2000, Lusenge created Women’s Solidarity for Peace and Integral Development, the DRC’s principal organization defending the rights of women and girls against gender-based violence. Her work has contributed to the adoption of United Nations international agreements such as UN 1820, which recognizes sexual violence as a weapon of war. Lusenge said the progress has made in her career, and the optimism she has for the future generations of women in her country motivate her to continue her advocacy.
“The sense of solidarity with other women keeps me going,” she said. “We must continue to struggle, to work, so that we can also feel the positive change.”