Gender Equality in modern day Cameroon: between empowerment policies and the social representation of women

In the ranking of countries regarding gender inequality, the Republic of Cameroun ranks 141st among 189 countries, making it part of the lower ranks[i]. This rank is better understood when looking at the data collected on gender equality, especially considering the unstable political context of the country.  As can be seen from various datawomen are generally discriminated against in society, especially in the target areas of the sustainable development goals like education, health, economical rights, political rights and decision. Thus, the reports and numbers show that for example 32.5% of women over 25 years of age have some level of secondary education (against 39.2% for men). Meanwhile, whereas 39% of the national population lives below the poverty line, this rate rises to 51.5% for women, and 79.2% of them are underemployed. This economic gap is further demonstrated by the fact that despite women making up 71.6% of workers in the informal agricultural sector, only 1.6 % own a land title in their name. There is also a considerable gap in the political field, as on a national level the government has only 6% women and only 27.1% in parliament, while locally, women are reported to be largely excluded from decision making in their communities. Moreover, regarding gender-based violence, there are concerning numbers: 43.2% of women in union are confronted with domestic violence, 39.8% and 14.5% respectively face emotional and sexual violence, and nationally 20.1% of women were reported to have been forced to have sex for their first sexual relationship. Overall, 56.4% of women in union experienced at least one of these forms of violence[iii].

 

These are just to list a few issues faced by women in Cameroon, but it appears obvious when looking at these numbers that the challenges for development in Cameroon cannot be separated from the challenges for gender equality and women’s empowerment. Therefore, it makes sense that for actions to have been taken by the government these past decades to promote and foster equality between men and women, in order to ensure sustainable development for the country. However, even though Cameroonian women, feminist militants and the civil society have fought and are still fighting against gender inequality and for the protection of women’s rights, it is mostly international factors and trends that motivated this political turn in Cameroon. In a context where women’s empowerment and gender have become somewhat of a trend that can be found in the center of most sustainable development strategies and programs, it is considered that adopting a gender approach is an example of “good governance” from a country. There is indeed even more of an incentive to include gender in national public policies for developing countries like Cameroon, as it is a mean to secure further funds for development aid from international institutions[iv]. Ever since the end of the 90’s, Cameroon has therefore started to adopt policies regarding women’s rights and gender equality, and to ratify several international texts guarantying and protecting women’s rights (like the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women). However, as the Cameroonian saying goes “one hand is not enough to tie the package”. There are quite some disparities between the national policies, and the social reality experienced daily by the men and women in the county, which leave to question the actual efficiency of the appropriation of gender issues by governing bodies.

 

The following article will aim to present an overview of the stakes involved in gender equality in the Cameroonian society today, exploring the contrast between the political instrumentalization of women’s empowerment and the social context.

 

A brief presentation of Cameroun policies on gender equality and their impact

 

In the last thirty years, several important legal instruments have been implemented by the Republic of Cameroon with the goal to promote and protect women’s rights and advancement to implement it. The most notable one is the reform of the national constitution in 1996 that states in its preamble that “all Men[v] are equals in rights and duties”. Following this, the Cameroonian law went through positive changes meant to enforce a few fundamental rights for women and ban harmful customs.[vi] For instance, the civil code specify that any marriage officiated without the clear consent of both spouses is null, while the penal code forbid any form of forced marriage. Jurisprudence also plays a role in changing traditional customs, sometimes even before the law.  A good example of that being the Supreme Court establishing equality in inheritance between men and women in 1992, even before the constitutional reform.

 

In parallel to the legislative evolution, the government has also put in place a policy called National Gender Policy of Cameroon (NGPC), formerly known as National Action Plan for the integration of Women in Development. This policy was adopted a year after the constitutional reform and is considered as a foundational instrument in the development and implementation of institutional mechanisms for gender equality, both nationally and locally. Its overall objective is to contribute to the systematic elimination of inequalities between women and men at all levels of social life. Its eight specific objectives and seven strategic axes of intervention stems from points taken from international conventions ratified by Cameroon or recommendations from international conferences attended by representants of the country, which show the influence that the international institutions have over the gender policies in Cameroon. This is further illustrated by another important document, the Strategy for Growth and Employment Document (DSCE)[vii]. It is also considered a key instrument in supporting and implementing specific gender policies in all the areas that are linked to employment (or have influence on it).[viii]

 

From what we can see however, all these legal advancements and initiative are strictly top-down. Which means that to be truly effective and instill changes they need to be properly executed and disseminated. However, if one looks more closely at the Cameroonian context, it becomes clear that an effective implementation of most of these policies is challenging, which obstruct the impact they can have on the people, especially in remote regions or regions going through a crisis.[ix]  Since it is mostly a matter of top-down policies, the issue actually starts right at the top. A fitting example of this would be the dissemination of the NGPC by the dismemberment of the State. A lack of harmony in coordination within the administrative bodies involved in social affairs, like the Ministry of family and women’s empowerment, interfere with a proper vulgarization of the policy to the people or their representatives. Indeed, the managerial staff of the Ministry of family and women’s empowerment are not always familiar with the NPGC, even though they are the ones in charge of its vulgarization. The same lack of knowledge is found among departmental service chiefs and regional representatives of the ministry, in charge of conducting the  policy in their territories.[x] Understandably, this reality present a huge difficulty for an efficient execution of the policy on the field, especially one that would be coherent with its objectives while being accessible to the targeted population. The fact that the political parties of the country almost never refer to the policy, and more generally pay little to no care in including gender issues in their political programs further contributes to accentuate the issue.[xi] Nonetheless, what constitute the most unfortunate demonstration of the inefficiency in the dissemination of the policy is the lack of communication and partnership with the Civil Society, especially women’s association. In an ironical turn of event, the entities who would also be the perfect intermediary for the implementation of this policy in a way that is relevant for the targeted population, are often unaware of the existence of such tools.  Often women associations are not reached by the information session on the vulgarization of policies, whether because they are not included or because they are unable to participate (due to difficult circumstances and lack of capacity). As they are usually the relay between local women and government officials, their lack of awareness result in deepening the gap between the unilateral and vertical conception of policy by the State and its social appropriation with communities across the nation. This reality is often criticized and both women associations and other actors from the Civil Society call for concrete collaboration with bodies of the State, and for more investments in capacity building and strengthening in order to be able to level the field[xii].

While the NGPC was used here as an example, the same conclusions can be applied to other national policies, which may raise questions on not only the shortcomings of the Cameroonian government in instrumentalizing gender policies in a comprehensive and efficient way, but also regarding the instrumentalization and implementation of executive decisions in general.

 

Before moving on to the next part however, there is some nuance to be added. It must indeed be recognized that there is some positive impact for the status of women in the country that have been observed, thanks to the evolution in legislation and policy. The most apparent progress would be women’s participation in politics which, while remaining relatively quite low, have been steadily rising these past few years. For instance, the number of women who have been deputies went from 25/360 to 55/360 from 2007 to 2018, while during the same time frame the numbers for female mayors went from 22/180 to 29/180.[xiii]  In most areas for decision making in politics, like prefects or senators the numbers show a similar small but stable growth, the same is also true for positions in the justice system and public administration. The only areas that still shows little to no advancement are positions like governor, some ministerial position or other high government position within central ministries.[xiv]

Other notable evolutions for women’s right would be an improving social context where thanks to the several legal advancements they have access to more resources and opportunities to assert their rights and benefit from the protection of the law, especially regarding their economical rights (equal inheritance, rights to property and land titles…).[xv]

 

A social representation of women that has a strong hold

 

A lack of proper dissemination of policies and of cooperative relationship between key entities, is unfortunately not the only obstacle to the advancement of women’s rights in the country. Traditions and customs still have a strong influence on the collective mind and regulate the social order in many Cameroonian communities, especially in rural areas. It is commonly considered, in the traditional sociocultural representation of women, that they are inferior beings destined to be always second to men because of their “biological” sexes. This prejudicial representation serves as the basis for very patriarchal behaviors and practices that relegates women and men to extremely stereotypical roles, that they are expected to perform within their communities.[xvi] These behaviors and practices are rooted early in children through an education and a socialization that normalize stereotypes as a natural evidence, making it more difficult to question. As such, the weight of tradition, education and peer pressure perpetuates the reproduction of social patterns discriminating against women, sometimes taking precedent over Cameroonian laws. Take for instance, the fact that very few women hold land title in their name despite the fact that they are the ones working in the fields most of the time. While legally they should be able to own land, they are still marginalized in the repartition of land in favor of men. Because it is traditionally expected for women to handle both domestic work and economic work, while returning the profits to their husband or other male members of the family, few women go against this pattern, while some are not always well informed about the law.[xvii]

In Cameroon, religion also plays a huge part in naturalizing and justifying the oppression of women. Despite Cameroon being a laic State, as guaranteed by the Constitution, there is still a lot of power detained by religious communities, whose teachings and rules are law to their believers. In most of the practiced religions observed in the country, much like with tradition, there is a submissive and prejudiced representation of women that is used to validate the control and domination that men are supposed to have over them. This proves to also be detrimental to the legal advancements concerning women’s right, as can be seen with the example of marriage. According to both civil and penal, marriage cannot be forced and requires the express consent of both parties involved to be valid. However, under the dual pressure of coercive methods and religious indoctrination, women are sometimes pushed into forced matrimony. Moreover, they are often, through similar means, compelled to stay in situations of domestic violence in order to not break the sacred union that is marriage. It should also be noted that polygamy is still legal in Cameroon and is encouraged in many communities, showing that despite its evolution the law still needs some improvement.[xviii]

 

Before concluding on this part, it must also be mentioned that the political crises encountered by the country in the last years contribute to accentuates discrimination against women and gender-based violence, which generates an inauspicious environment for gender equality measures to be enforced.[xix]  Indeed, displaced women and girls are even more likely to suffer from sexual abuse and/or exploitation which will often result in them being shunned by their communities when they return. Moreover, during displacement situation because of a surge in morbidity, which causes a rise in care work, women’s workload increases as they are mostly the ones in charge of care.[xx]

  

Conclusion

 

The goal of this article was to provide a brief analysis that would help in understanding some of the stakes involved in relation to the issue of gender equality in the Republic of Cameroon. The focus in comparing governmental action with examples from the social context was in order to highlight an issue that concern many “developing” countries when it comes to women’s empowerment. It usually follows the vertical narrative of the government adopting policies, most of them according to the guidelines of international organizations and institutions according to a top-down strategy. While using a top down approach is sometimes needed in order to implement policies, however in this case, by the time it has reached the bottom the measures taken are not adapted to the reality of the targeted group. There are several women’s associations and women activists whose actions could serve as basis for a bottom up approach in policy making for gender equality. For example, in Cameroon the Douala Mandjara Association (consisting only of women) and their Mandjara cultural festival, promotes women’s leadership and sorority, sought to bring ethnic communities together and celebrate ignored or forgotten traditions from ancestral history that lift women up and support them in their agency. And they do so without taking into account any of the national or international policy.[xxi]

 

[i] Delphine Brun, Data on gender equality in Cameroon, report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 17th of October 2019

[ii] See the references and sources from the report

[iii] Delphine Brun, Data on gender equality in Cameroon, report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 17th of October 2019

[iv] Mefire, L. M., Vissandjée, B., & Bibeau, G. (2017). Cameroon and the Gender Issue. Advances in Anthropology, 7, 34-45. https://doi.org/10.4236/aa.2017.71004  

[v] Author note: It is a translation from French where the use of “Homme” with a capital H is meant to include women also.

[vi] Mefire, L. M., Vissandjée, B., & Bibeau, G. (2017). Cameroon and the Gender Issue. Advances in Anthropology, 7, 34-45. https://doi.org/10.4236/aa.2017.71004  

[vii] French acronym for « Document de Stratégie pour la Croissance et l'Emploi »

[viii] Mefire, L. M., Vissandjée, B., & Bibeau, G. (2017). Cameroon and the Gender Issue. Advances in Anthropology, 7, 34-45. https://doi.org/10.4236/aa.2017.71004  

[ix] Ibid

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid

[xii] Victorine Ghislaine Nzino Munongo. GENRE ET OBJECTIFS DE DEVELOPPEMENT DURABLE: Du sociétal au social. Genre et objectifs de développement durable, MINRESI/CNE, Cameroun, Yaoundé, Cameroun, Mar 2017, Yaoundé, Cameroun. hal-01509447

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Victorine Ghislaine Nzino Munongo, Evelyne Marlyse Nonga. Vers une redéfinition de la construction sociale et psychologique de la femme parallèlement à la célébration de la Journée Internationale de la Femme au Cameroun. 2019. hal-02334346

[xv] Victorine Ghislaine Nzino Munongo. GENRE ET OBJECTIFS DE DEVELOPPEMENT DURABLE: Du sociétal au social. Genre et objectifs de développement durable, MINRESI/CNE, Cameroun, Yaoundé, Cameroun, Mar 2017, Yaoundé, Cameroun. hal-01509447

[xvi] Victorine Ghislaine Nzino Munongo, Evelyne Marlyse Nonga. Vers une redéfinition de la construction sociale et psychologique de la femme parallèlement à la célébration de la Journée Internationale de la Femme au Cameroun. 2019. hal-02334346

[xvii] Ibid

[xviii] Victorine Ghislaine Nzino Munongo, Evelyne Marlyse Nonga. Vers une redéfinition de la construction sociale et psychologique de la femme parallèlement à la célébration de la Journée Internationale de la Femme au Cameroun. 2019. hal-02334346

[xix] Delphine Brun, Data on gender equality in Cameroon, report from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 17th of October 2019

[xx] Ibid

[xxi] Laurentine Mouchingam Mefire, Politiques publiques, programmes et projets sensibles au genre : cas de la communauté Mandjara au Cameroun, 2017

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Contact us