In The Heart Of Africa: The Violation Of Women Rights In Cameroon And Its Impacts On Modern Society

By ILA  •  October 12, 2021  •  23 min read

Abstract: In the 21st century, the discrimination faced by Cameroon women is very alarming and has caused great concern from many international organizations like the United Nations, which has urged the government on several occasions to take effective actions to solve the issues.  Since its accession to independence in 1960, Cameroon has seen major improvements in many areas of society. But unfortunately, this has not been the case with the situation of women that still constitutes serious drawbacks even 53years after independence. In this article, followed by a brief introduction of the country, we shall primarily discuss the various forms of violence and hardships faced by the women. This will give an overview of how the hardships have contributed to the underdevelopment of the country during the last decades. After that, we shall have a brief description of the structure of the country, followed by a discussion of some customs, traditions and practices considered to be vital by the traditional societies but discriminatory to women according to modern rules and legislations. Then we shall discuss how women are discriminated against in domestic environments and also in various parts of society. In the course of the descriptions, we shall outline some important actions taken by the government and different international and non-profit making organizations. At last, we shall have some recommendations and a conclusion.

Violence Against Women In The Community

Introduction

Cameroon is a Central African country whose women are mostly characterized by their cultural diversities and differences. This is because it is home to about 250 Ethnic groups speaking about 283 local languages. At the end of colonization from Britain and France, the country retained two official languages of English and French. Since 1982, the country has been governed by the same president, Paul BIYA and the same political party with a system in which power is highly centralized with some few ethnic groups dominant in the management of the country [1].  In 2017, Cameroon has a population of about 24.5 million people of which women constitute about 49.99% [2]. This is approximately half of the population size and thus, shows the vitality of respecting women rights in perfect equality. Between the years 2008-2012, Cameroon had a percentage youth literacy rate of 76.4 for females compared to 85.4 for males [2]. In the following paragraphs, we shall discuss the various forms of discrimination faced in different parts of the country.

Law System In Cameroon

As a past colony of Britain and France, Cameroon was left with two different law systems; the British law in the Northwest and Southwestern parts formerly colonized by Britain and the French law system in the former Oriental part of the country colonized by France, which all coexist with the traditional laws [3]. The inability of the government to perfectly homogenize the two colonial languages all over the Country has created several issues in the law system.  As a solution, the government unified the criminal law between 1965 and 1967 in a single penal code [3], which also discriminates against women as will be seen later. Traditional laws vary from one ethnic group to another and constitute great drawbacks to the rights of women, as they mostly give all rights to the man who is placed at the centre of everything. In cases where crimes are being committed, an individual can decide whether to take the case to the traditional law court or to the state law.

Violation Of Women Rights In Prisons

According to research made by the Cameroonian doctoral student HELEN NAMONDO FONTEBO on the conditions of prisons in Cameroon, the findings reveal that both international and national ratified policies are mere “paperwork”, lacking effective implementation. In general, for the prisons visited, there was a lack of educational and training facilities and this caused the prisoners with already low levels of education to face all forms of abuse because they do not know their basic rights [4]. Torture and rape of female prisoners by prison guards and administrative staff was still a widely practised form of punishment, regardless of regular visits of the prisons by some Human rights Organizations. The torture may manifest itself by the physical beating of the prisoners all over their bodies and especially on the soles of their feet, undressing of the females in front of the prison staff and male prisoners in some cases, asking the females to dance for them, or even having sexual intercourse with them in exchange for some basic services like healthcare which were not provided free of charge to the prisoners. There is always the fear of rape of females by their male inmates, for example in 2007 in the main prison (Kondengui) of the Capital of Cameroon, when the staff were striking against the poor working conditions, some male prisoners took the opportunity to escape to the female side and severe cases of rape were reported [5]. These forms of rape expose the women to diseases due to the absence of protection. Furthermore, due to the poor state of the food provided, the females are sometimes forced to prostitute themselves to the male inmates or even prison guards in order to get money to cook their own food. Moreover, there is no provision made for conjugal visits in most prisons and so same-sex relationships are dominant.

The research also shows that despite the fact that pregnant women and nursing mothers are not supposed to be imprisoned with their babies, the actual situation is different. Occasionally, pregnant women are even arrested and made to deliver their babies during their incarceration periods. When this happens, the women are taken to the hospitals nearest to the prisons for delivery. The situation is aggravated because as soon as they deliver, they have to come back to the prisons with the children in the absence of health, nutritional or social facilities for them. One of the women who became pregnant while waiting for her custody was taken back to prison with her baby after three months of delivery. When interviewed on why she took so long to come back to prison, she said [6]:

“ You know, when I gave birth I spent three months in the hospital and, at that time, the social officers and my lawyer were following up that I should be given bail. There was no possibility that is why I came to prison with the baby. There was nobody to take the baby; that is why I spent one year with the baby. In fact, the baby had to grow up before somebody could accept to take care and you can actually see that it is not good for a baby to be given out when it is very young. That is why at the age of one my mother came for the baby (Angela)”

Angela mentioned the need to bond with the child when the child is still very young. This mother had only one year to bond with her child before being taken away by the grandmother. These forms of separations often cause deep sorrows and even traumas to the imprisoned ladies.

Violence Against Women In The Family

According to a report from the 57th session of the commission on the status of Cameroon women to the UN [7];

Since the age of 15, more than half of women (55%) in Cameroon have experienced physical violence, mainly perpetrated by their current or most recent husbands/partners, but also by their mother/father’s wife or their father/mother’s husband and/or their sister/brother;

Globally, 34% of women aged 15 to 49 have experienced physical violence: 8%) have experienced sexual violence and 21% have experienced both physical and sexual violence;

Among women who have already had sexual intercourse, 20% did so for the first time against their will, especially those who had the intercourse prior to the age of 15 (30%);

Among women who have already been in a union, 60% have experienced physical, sexual or emotional violence from their current or most recent husband;

Among women who have experienced marital violence, 43% have had injuries as a result of this violence.

Marital Violence And Womens Attitudes

As said earlier, the interference of traditional laws with modern laws causes serious problems because most people still live according to traditional laws and are not aware of modern ones which are more protective. For example, in most of the traditional laws, the bride price asked the future husband is often very high both in terms of money and material. As such, the husband and his family often consider it as the price for the future wife who is considered as a labour property owned by the man after marriage [8]. This makes it very difficult for the woman to divorce their husbands. Likewise, it is often hard for women to inherit the husband’s property after his death because they themselves are considered as owned properties. Moreover, it is very common to see husbands beating their wives, and even unmarried couples fighting in the cities and rural regions. According to a 2011 report from the Cameroon National Institute of Statistics, about 47% of the women interviewed all over the country think it is normal for their husbands to beat them in situations such as food burning, arguing with the husband, leaving the house without informing the husband, neglecting the children or even refusing to have sex with the husband [9]. Some of the interviewed women claimed women should continue to be educated regardless of their age (50% of girls between 18-19years approved). These kinds of justifications are more common in rural regions than urban (54% against 40%). Only 28% of educated women agree with those kinds of treatments.

The region with the highest percentage of tolerance to such practices is the Southwest region where 60% of the women interviewed think it is normal to be beaten. They mostly agree to be beaten in cases where they neglect the children. This is a serious problem because the victims do not report the cases of domestic violence as they think it is normal.

Child Marriage Issue

According to the UN Population Fund Organization, in 2016, about 13% of Cameroon women under the age of 15 and 18% of those under the age of 18 had been sent to forced marriages [10]. Below is an extract of an interview recorded from a victim in the Maroua region in the North of Cameroon [11]

“I was forced into marriage by my father at the age of 14,” Faouzia Yaya, now 17, told UNFPA. “My father insisted, even knowing I did not want it. I even ran away to my uncle’s place, but he still found me.”

During her marriage, Faouzia endured much violence “My husband used to beat me daily,” she said.

Many other adolescents decide to run away from their families just like Faouzia in order to avoid forced marriages. In some cases, they never return to their homes for fear of marriages and prefer to live in the streets where they resort to prostitution in order to take care of themselves.

Even though a new law was passed on the penal code under article 356 to protect children against forced marriages in 2016 [11], forced marriage practices are still widely spread and causes children to leave school and deprive them of their right to education. The probability of adolescent pregnancy also being high causes serious health complications at the time of delivery. Much work still has to be done on raising the awareness of the citizens on their rights, especially in the rural areas.

Violence Against Women In The Community

Rape:

Article 296 of the Cameroon penal code punishes rape by stating that [12] “whoever by force or any moral ascendency compels any person whether above or below the age of puberty, to have sexual intercourse with him shall be punished with imprisonment from 5(five) to 10(ten) years”

Article 297, which contrarily to the previous is considered by many organizations as discriminatory to women states that: “Marriage freely consented between the offender and the victim, even where she is over puberty at the time of the commission of the offence provided for in sections 295 and 296 above, shall have no effect on the prosecution and conviction”. From this, it can be clearly seen that the rapist can go free of charge after marrying the victim. This allows his criminal responsibility to be extinguished, thus treating rape as a crime distinguished from other crimes against a person. This does not also consider a woman’s full and free consent to marriage as the cultures often compel them to marry in order to save the family’s honour.

Prostitution Of Women

According to statistics from the UN Human Development Index reports, 27.1% of the population of Cameroon lived under severe poverty conditions with 24% having less than 1.9 US dollars per day in the year 2014 [13]. This severe poverty together with the lack of education and job opportunities often causes females to resort to prostitution. Some traditions and social values also contribute to their prostitution. A common behaviour is that of poor families who usually prefer to send their daughters to wealthier relatives in the cities to live with them and pursue their studies. These favours provided by the relatives are usually in exchange for some house services and other tasks that the daughters can perform. In addition to that, the relatives send some money to the daughters’ families in the rural regions. On some occasions, this intra-family help is used by traffickers who force the girls into prostitution. There are also cases of rape by the housemen in the host families. More recently due to low living standards, more and more women have been leaving the country to look for better lives in Europe. In the most common cases, some relatives living abroad convince their families with promises of better education, good jobs and better lives, only for the daughters to be put into the prostitution market after reaching Europe. In other cases those without means to afford flight tickets decide to adventure themselves in more dangerous road journeys which involve the crossing of the Sahara desert, then after reaching coastal regions of countries in North Africa, moving through deadly paths of the Mediterranean Sea to access Europe. These road journeys are usually unsafe and make them vulnerable to all sorts of abuses such as rape and aggression. In the absence of financial means, ladies have no other choice than prostituting themselves to survive.

Abortion Policies

Article 337 of the Cameroon penal code punishes all women procuring or consenting to their own abortions through imprisonment ranging from 15days to 1year with a fine ranging between 10 to 400US dollars [14]. The UN Human Rights Committee stated in 1999, in its concluding observations concerning the human rights situation in Cameroon, that [15]: “The Committee is concerned that the criminalization of abortion leads to unsafe abortions which account for a high rate of maternal mortality”.  Since then, the law used on abortion is still the same and according to statistics from the UN Human Development Index report, 345 women out of 1000 died in the year 2011 while giving birth [16]. This, according to the UN observation stated above is very regrettable. Moreover, although statistics for the number of abortions are not available, it is known that many adolescents go into it. The most common reasons are either the lack of financial means to take care of the children, unwillingness to disrupt their education or even the refusal of their families to take care of children out of marriages. The complications resulting from illegal abortions still constitute serious problems, especially among adolescents and married women whose husbands refuse to use contraceptives. In most Cameroon traditions, it is also believed that life is very precious and sacred. So illegal abortions are often followed by great mental traumas of the adolescents who remain affected throughout their lifetimes.

Actions Taken By The Government

According to a report from the 57th session of the commission on the status of Cameroon women to the UN report under the theme “Elimination and prevention of violence against women and girls”, the minister of women’s empowerment and family of the Republic of Cameroon said the following actions had been taken to solve the problems in collaboration with local and other national organizations [17]:

In order to raise the awareness especially of rural women on their rights, 300 radio programs were produced in 2013 in local languages together with the involvement of the traditional and local administrative authorities,

The mobilization of youths, by the National Commission for Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in partnership with the Ministry of Youths Affairs and Civic Education and the Cameroon Youths and Students Forum for Peace and with support from UN-Women, in view of fighting violence against girls through youth caravans, media-covered debates and distribution of awareness Kits,

The creation of a national network to fight violence against women made up of civil society organizations, with support from the French Embassy and UN-Women,

The initiative of the NGO Women in Alternative Action (WAA) dubbed “Queen for Peace Initiative” implemented through the organization from November 28 to 30, 2012 of a forum that saw the active participation of 100 queens (wives of traditional rulers) from the 10 Regions of Cameroon. These queens were chosen because of the traditional authority vested in them, their position beside traditional rulers as counsellors and conveyers of positive values and also because they are listened to by the kings. This forum helped to highlight the different forms of violence against women and girls across the country. Also, the capacities of the queens were strengthened in the areas of advocacy, the promotion of women’s rights and gender, to enable them effectively fight violence against women and girls in their Regions. The queens made a commitment to work with their husbands (the traditional rulers);

The campaign against rape and incest launched in 2010 for a period of 03 years, to encourage victims to denounce perpetrators so that they can be punished by justice,

The establishment of a platform to fight gender-based violence involving the forces of law and order, civil society and sector ministries,

Capacity building for personnel of the judiciary, court auxiliaries and judicial officers including magistrates, lawyers, bailiffs and notaries on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in order to secure access to justice for women victims of violence,

Legal assistance for widows in the follow-up of inheritance-related procedures,

Regarding the fight against prostitution, the exploitation of female prostitution is punishable under Article 294 on the criminalization of procuring. The provisions of this Article prescribe the closure of prostitution establishments by the judge. In addition, the minor girl is specially protected from the moral hazard of prostitution under Article 345 of the same Code, which punishes the fact of having a child under 18 years reside or work in a house or establishment where prostitution is practised,

The designing of a socio-economic integration project for teenage mothers and ‘free girls’ who are victims of violence known as the “Aunties” project, established in 2009, has enabled the socio-economic integration of at least 400 teenage mothers and ‘free girls’ after 5 years.

Recommendations

The government should primarily determine situations in which the traditional laws and national laws should be used in order to prevent men from abusing women of their own will. Secondarily, more efforts should be put in the raising of awareness of rural women on their basic rights.

For prisons, the state should put in more effort to solve the problem of overcrowding. Moreover, a committee should be created to solve the problems of women abuse. Furthermore, proper free healthcare and food facilities should be provided to women. For women with babies, assistance should be provided and special cells with maternal facilities should be constructed. The states of prisons should also be improved to prevent cases of evasion of males to female cells in order to avoid subsequent rape cases.

Traditional practices that make women be seen as labour or other kinds of properties should be stopped. Information on reported cases of women kept by traditional chiefs in hereditary slavery should be collected and common solutions should be found between the governments and the concerned chiefs [18]. More adolescent girls should be sent to schools and job opportunities must be created to reduce extreme poverty that leads to prostitution.

Laws against men committing domestic violence like beating and raping their wives must be implemented and made effective. As mentioned earlier, Article 295 of the penal code frees men from all rape and violence crimes they may have committed on a lady if they get married to them with free consent. Most families according to their traditions force their daughters to marry their rapists in order to save the honour of the family. So, this article discriminates against the woman as it makes it possible for the man to go free of charge even after committing crimes. The article should be changed in order to punish the man for his crimes or proper measures must be taken to ensure that the ladies going into those kinds of marriages are not being forced by their parents.

More actions should be taken to support the new law passed against forced adolescent marriages in article 356 of the penal code in 2016 to make sure the practices are eradicated from the country.

Though not mentioned above, according to the UNICEF statistics for Cameroon, female genital mutilation is observed in 1.4% of the country’s population [19]. In 2007, the Government, with support from technical and financial partners, notably UN-WOMEN( United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and Women Empowerment) and UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), has conducted awareness campaigns in four (04) FGM focus localities. These campaigns led to the symbolic hand-over of knives by converted FGM practitioners. Such initiatives should be encouraged and multiplied by the government authorities in collaboration with NGOs, international organizations and local authorities.

Abortions must either be legalized or precautions have to be taken to prevent unwanted pregnancies at adolescent ages. In case abortions are not legalized, special care must be given to adolescents with unwanted pregnancies from the start to delivery. The government should also allocate funds for adolescents with unwanted pregnancies. In cases where husbands abandon their wives with many children, part of these funds should be given to the women to take care of their children.

For adolescents who have committed abortion, rehabilitation centres should be created primarily to help them go through those hard situations and then to train them on professions they can do to earn their livings. These institutions should have as main option to redirect the adolescents to schools.

Special agencies should be created to deal with cases of women trafficking and maltreatment. The government should also empower more Human Rights NGOs by providing more funds and supporting their struggles to protect women rights.

The government should create institutions to train the youths on how to deal with the problems of women rights violations in order to assist NGOs and governmental organizations through volunteerism.

A study from the Cameroon National Statistics Institution shows that in 2011, only 30% of Cameroon women did not take part in any of the important decision makings in the house [20]. This situation should be changed by an increase in the efforts and continuation to address the needs of rural women by the state and ensure that women participate more actively in both domestic and governmental decision making processes.

Conclusion

In this research, we have seen how the emancipation of the Cameroon woman is vital for a more equitable, rapid development and emergence of the country. We have also seen how the lack of financial means and political will of the government and traditional authorities to take proper action have caused the women to continue living in deep pain. Moreover, from a broader point of view, we have also seen how the problems faced by particular nations if not properly handled may cause harm to other nations of the world due to globalization. For example, the illegal immigration of Cameroon women to Europe due to the poor living conditions and non-respect of their basic rights back home. Combining all factors discussed in this article to our knowledge of life, we can conclude that without women, there would be no humanity, without proper mother love, care, education and protection, more and more criminals would emerge from our societies. So, it is our duty as citizens of the world to make sure the rights of our wives, mothers, sisters and all women on Earth are protected. I plead and urge all the international organizations, NGOs and private individuals to take action and stand against women right violation in Cameroon and other nations of the world.

References

[1] Violence against Women in Cameroon, a Report to the UN Committee against Torture, pp. 122, available at http://www.omct.org/files/2004/07/2409/eng_2003_03_cameroon.pdf(last accessed on 8.10.2017)

[2] UNICEF Statistics, Country profile; Cameroon, available at https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cameroon_statistics.html (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[3] Violence against Women in Cameroon, a Report to the UN Committee against Torture, pp. 124, available at http://www.omct.org/files/2004/07/2409/eng_2003_03_cameroon.pdf(last accessed on 8.10.2017)

[4] Prison conditions in Cameroon: the narratives of female inmates by HELEN NAMONDO FONTEBO, pp.282, available at http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/13069/thesis_fontebo_hn.pdf?sequence=1(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[5] Same-Sex Relationships in Cameroonian Prisons: Perspectives of Female Inmates and Prison Staff Members by HELEN NAMONDO LINONGE-FONTEBO, pp.109  available at https://lesonlinesite.files.wordpress.com/2017/03/same-sex-relationships-in-cameroonian-prisons.pdf (last accessed on 8.10.2017)

[6] Prison conditions in Cameroon: the narratives of female inmates by HELEN NAMONDO FONTEBO, pp.230, available at http://uir.unisa.ac.za/bitstream/handle/10500/13069/thesis_fontebo_hn.pdf?sequence=1(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[7] Cameroon, 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women on the theme; “Elimination and Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls”, pp2, pp3. Available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw57/generaldiscussion/memberstates/Cameroon.pdf(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[8] Violence against Women in Cameroon, a Report to the UN Committee against Torture, pp. 127, available at http://www.omct.org/files/2004/07/2409/eng_2003_03_cameroon.pdf(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[9] Cameroon National Institute of Statistics: Enquête Démographique ET De Santé ET À Indicateurs Multiples (Eds-Mics) 2011, pp.317, available at http://slmp-550-104.slc.westdc.net/~stat54/downloads/EDS-MICS/EDSMICS2011.pdf (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[10] Child marriage around the World; Cameroon, available at https://www.girlsnotbrides.org/child-marriage/cameroon/ (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[11] United Nations Population Fund: New rules to help end child marriage in Cameroon, available at https://www.unfpa.org/news/new-rules-help-end-child-marriage-cameroon#(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[12] Law No. 2016/007 of 12 July 2016, Relating to Penal code, Cameroon, pp.108, Available at https://www.prc.cm/files/9f/7d/58/a7ede893ee74da404dd21cedb52e87fd.pdf (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[13] UN Human Development Reports, Cameroon Human Development Indicators, available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/CMR (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[14] Law No. 2016/007 of 12 July 2016, Relating to Penal code, Cameroon, pp.129, Available at https://www.prc.cm/files/9f/7d/58/a7ede893ee74da404dd21cedb52e87fd.pdf (last accessed on 8.10.2017)

[15] Violence against Women in Cameroon, a Report to the UN Committee against Torture, pp. 138, available at http://www.omct.org/files/2004/07/2409/eng_2003_03_cameroon.pdf(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[16] UN Human Development Reports, Cameroon Human Development Indicators, available at http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/CMR (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[17] Cameroon, 57th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women on the theme; “Elimination and Prevention of Violence against Women and Girls”, pp4, pp5. Available at http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/csw/csw57/generaldiscussion/memberstates/Cameroon.pdf(last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[18] UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Concluding observations on the combined fourth and fifth periodic reports of Cameroon, pp9, available at http://evaw-global-database.unwomen.org/-/media/files/un%20women/vaw/country%20report/africa/cameroon/cameroon%20concluding%20observations%20of%20the%20committee%20on%20the%20elimination%20of%20discrimination%20against%20women%20cedaw.pdf( last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[19] UNICEF Statistics, Country profile; Cameroon, available at https://www.unicef.org/infobycountry/cameroon_statistics.html (last accessed on 08.10.2017)

[20] Cameroon National Institute of Statistics: Enquête Démographique ET De Santé ET À Indicateurs Multiples (Eds-Mics) 2011, pp.317, available at http://slmp-550-104.slc.westdc.net/~stat54/downloads/EDS-MICS/EDSMICS2011.pdf (last accessed on 08.10.2017)