Cameroon, like most countries around the globe, has made some major international commitments regarding the issue of gender equity and women empowerment. The whole notion of gender equity derives from the injustices women across the world suffer, especially women in poor parts of the world like Cameroon. In many poor countries of the world, this situation has been compounded by the preference of customary laws, which favor overt discrimination against women to civil laws, which seek to protect the rights of all the citizens in the country regardless of their gender. Government’s inadequate commitment to gender equality and women empowerment is certainly to blame for the continuation of discrimination against women.
This paper seeks to determine the distance Cameroon, as a nation, has covered over the last two decades regarding gender equity and women empowerment. It also aims at highlighting the rough edges, which still exist in Cameroon’s gender equity and women empowerment policies and strategies. Similarly, it also advocates a rigorous legal framework that will help grant the Cameroonian woman equality with the man as a first and major step towards political participation and economic development.
Gender Equity and Women Empowerment: The Road Half-travelled
The empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of their political, social, economic and health status is not only a goal in itself, but also a means to an end, and the end is, incontestably, the attainment of sustainable economic and social development. In order to attain this objective, the full participation and partnership of both women and men is necessary both in productive and reproductive life, including shared responsibilities for the raising of kids and the running of the household.
In many parts of the world including Cameroon, women are facing threats to their lives and health, given that they are overburdened with house and farm work. In Cameroon, women’s abilities and knowledge are usually not recognized in the effort towards sustainable economic development. Many women in Cameroon, most of whom live in the rural areas, do not have the right to personal political and social opinions, their right to inherit property is, most of the time, checked through the use of customary laws and cultural practices. Violence against women, in Cameroon, is a common phenomenon; women are usually not allowed to form their own opinions when it comes to reproductive rights and health-related issues. They are simply required, by tradition, to abide by what their partners or spouses think about such important issues that, strangely, affect their lives directly.
Conscious of the great importance of women’s participation in every aspect of life in a country like Cameroon, the government of Cameroon has identified with multilateral efforts to empower women, and it has taken some measures, at the national level, to ensure that gender equity and women empowerment become realities in Cameroon.
At the national level, the government of Cameroon encourages the work of women’s groups which turn to increase the awareness of women, many NGOs like Project Parity now operate in Cameroon to further the course of gender equity and women empowerment. Today, the government of the country has more women than it used to have. There exists today in Cameroon a ministry of women’s affairs, which is supposed to focus on issues affecting women in the Cameroonian society.
Similarly, the government has made it possible for all Cameroonians, without any distinction as to sex, to have access to primary school education, and access to secondary education has been facilitated through highly subsidized education; something which serves as an incentive to all Cameroonians, including women, who have the capacity and the ability to acquire the education that will help to empower them. Also, women studies have become part of the school curricula of some universities in the country such as the University of Buea, Cameroon, and the purpose of such programs is to ensure that gender issues are taught within schools so as to increase awareness about issues facing the Cameroonian woman in particular and women across the globe in general.
Government efforts in the area of education as a tool for women empowerment and gender equity tie in well with the U.N. assertion that “Education is one of the most important means of empowering women with the knowledge, skills and self-confidence necessary to participate fully in the development process.”
In the same vein, many women have been integrated into the political life of the country. More women now serve as members of parliament, mayors, municipal counselors and top party militants of the various parties that have been authorized to operate in the country. There is an increased number of women journalists in the country today, and women-related programs are very much encouraged in the public and private media. The constitution of the Republic of Cameroon recognizes the human rights of women and the U.S. Department of State 1999 Human Rights Report says “Women rights are recognized constitutionally in Cameroon” a point which buttresses this assertion. By enshrining the protection of the rights of women in the constitution, the government of Cameroon is making efforts, at the national level, to check the injustice Cameroonian women have suffered for a long time.
Furthermore, by initiating and encouraging change through the work of national and international NGOs, the government of Cameroon is acknowledging that “change requires policy and program actions that will improve women’s access to secure livelihoods and economic resources, alleviate their extreme responsibilities with regard to housework, remove legal impediments to their participation in public life, and raise social awareness through effective programs of education and mass communication.”
At the international level, Cameroon has always been represented at many international forums that seek to improve the quality of life for women across the globe. Cameroon was represented at the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) which ran from 5-13 September 1994 in Cairo, Egypt and at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China; which was held from 4-15 September 1995 where, like most countries, Cameroon reaffirmed its commitment to the “equal rights and inherent dignity of women and men and other purposes and principles enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights instruments, in particular the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women and the Declaration on the Rights to Development.”
Moreover, by being part of the Beijing Declaration Platform for Action, the government of Cameroon was working to “ ensure the full implementation of the human rights of women and of the girl child as an inalienable, integral and indivisible part of all human rights and fundamental freedoms.”
By making national and international commitments for action, including those made at conferences, the government of Cameroon recognizes the urgent need to take priority action for the empowerment and advancement of women.
However, though the picture painted of the government of Cameroon in this research paper concerning gender equality and women empowerment smacks of a high level commitment on the part of the government, there is still a lot of ground that the government has to cover in this regard. Many things still stand in the way of the Cameroonian woman in her effort to attain parity with the Cameroonian man. Some of these obstacles are both institutional and traditional.
The Need for Greater Commitment: The Road Ahead
It is important at this point to underscore that much of the progress made by the government in this regard is basically in the major cities of the country. The rural areas of the country that are seriously begging for these initiatives so that the rural woman can be released from the shackles of tradition and stereotype are not having access to the education they need and deserve. In these areas of the country, traditional laws, which have enslaved the woman and made her inferior to the man, still govern those who reside there. Girls are treated differently from boys in these areas, and in certain cases, the girls are not allowed to go to school. They are, in certain circumstances, compel to marry against their wish and, in most cases, they marry men who are a lot older than they are.
Though there are more women today than they were thirty years ago in the Cameroon public service, military and private sector, it must still be mentioned that women still face huge problems when it comes to employment. Certain career paths do not take the interest of women into consideration. At the level of the public service, women are not very conspicuous in most decision-making circles. They have been reduced to administrative assistants, communications officers and secretaries with little or no decision-making authority.
Besides, in order for most women to rise to prominent positions, they have to serve as sex objects to their bosses, especially those who are single. The ‘sex-for-promotion’ philosophy is unfortunately still present in Cameroon’s public service. This situation is worse in the private sector where there are no employment rules or, if they do exist, there are no independent bodies to monitor the employment process. In certain cases women have to sell their bodies in order to obtain jobs that they clearly qualify to do. Furthermore, with the prevailing economic crisis in Cameroon, women, especially teenagers, have been rendered vulnerable to the politically and economically powerful. The absence of tough government legislation and a strict monitoring or law enforcement agency in this regard makes any effort, especially by the non-governmental community a futile endeavor.
While it should be mentioned that the protection of women rights and women equality are enshrined in the constitution of the country, it must be recalled that implementation of these noble ideas has encountered many obstacles. This therefore makes it impossible for women to enjoy the same rights as men. The U.S. Department of State Report on Human Rights published in 1999 confirms this by saying that “ Women rights are recognized constitutionally in Cameroon, but that women do not, in fact, enjoy the same rights and privileges as men…no legal definition of discrimination exists, and some points of civil law are prejudicial to women.” The report continues “Because of the importance attached to customs and traditions, laws protecting women often are not respected.”
This explains, in part, the massive violence women, especially those in the rural areas suffer in the hands of their abusive husbands or spouses. In certain cases, when abused women report cases of violence to the police, they are advised to return to their homes in order to have the problems solved traditionally, and traditional laws have always held that men are superior to women and men have the right to correct their spouses in any way they deem fit. From this perspective, it is therefore obvious that when traditional laws take precedence over civil laws, a woman’s complaints are not dealt with properly because of long-standing beliefs relating to women. Even when issues between a husband and a wife are taken to court, the honesty of any decision taken by the courts is always questionable because men dominate these courts, and most of the men heading the courts hold the same archaic traditional beliefs. This situation has been compounded by the increasing poverty and unemployment in Cameroon, which have affected women more than the men and the deeply rooted corruption that has overwhelmed Cameroon’s judiciary. The New Internationalist supports this view in its country profile on Cameroon released in September 2000 when it says, “ …the judiciary is subject to political influence and suffers corruption and inefficiency….” Since men have greater political and economic power in Cameroon, they can easily corrupt members of the judiciary whenever they have problems with their spouses. The corruption the judiciary has suffered has led to gross injustice towards women. This unfortunate situation does not only frustrate efforts aimed empowering women, it also calls for immediate and urgent government action by way reforms as a means of granting women equality with men.
If the government of Cameroon has to live up to its international commitments vis-à-vis gender equality and women empowerment, it must reform its judiciary, ensure that civil laws take precedence over traditional law, allow both national and international NGOs and human rights groups to be involved in the employment process in the country, take legal action against those who seek to foster certain negative stigmas against women and, above all, pass legislation that will set employment quarters for women, be it in the private or public sector. The government must vigorously combat sexual harassment, sex-for-promotion and sex-for-employment philosophy so that they can become things of the past. If not, whatever initiative the government of Cameroon will take regarding women equality and gender equity, its efforts will be seen as inadequate and it will be accused of paying lip-service to the noble goal of gender equity.
By Joachim Arrey
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Country Information & Policy Unit (1999) “Cameroon Country Assessment” Home Office.
U.S. Department of State’s Human Right’s Report, 1999
Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (2000) “1999 Country Report on Human Rights Practices – Cameroon” U.S. Department of State.
New Internationalist 327 Country Profile, September 2000
Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.WWW.iisd.ca/linkages/women.html.
United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), Cairo, Egypt. WWW.iisd.ca/linkages/cairo.html.