Republic of Cameroon, a country of 15 million, is located
on the Central West African coast. With its 250 ethnic groups (including 31 percent
Cameroon Highlanders, 19 percent Equatorial Bantu, 11 percent
Kirdi, 10 percent Fulani), who speak dozens of languages,
it is one of the most culturally diverse countries in Africa.
Although the law does not discriminate against minorities,
there have been reports of treatment of the indigenous Baka
(Pygmies) as inferiors, especially in labor practices and by expulsions by logging companies and security forces as response
to protests by Pygmies. There
are tensions between the French-speaking majority and English-speaking
Cameroonians, who reside mostly in the northwestern and western
part of the country. The
two main religions, Islam and Christianity, exist alongside
traditional animist beliefs.
Women work predominantly as farmers, petty
traders, domestic workers and homemakers. Despite their considerable
contribution to the national economy, women are marginalized
by their inferior
status and Cameroon
continues to be a society ruled by men.
gained independence from France and Britain in 1960 and remained
a one-party state until the introduction of multipartyism
in 1992. The first
multiparty elections, in 1992, were won by president Paul
Biya. Biya was also
declared the winner of the second presidential election in
1997, which was boycotted by the main opposition parties and
marred by irregularities; international observers called them
flawed and fraudulent. President
Biya and his circle of advisors largely come from his own
Beti ethnic group
and his party, the Cameroon People’s Democratic
Movement (CPDM). CPDM also dominates the National Assembly.
A new Constitution was introduced in 1996, and the
president subsequently amended it to give himself more control
Freedom of Expression
to a 1999 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists,
journalists who reported on irregularities and fraud during
the October 1997 election have faced harassment, including
criminal defamation charges, arbitrary detention and death
threats. Some publications, such as popular editor Pius
Njawe’s daily Le Messager
and the satirical weekly Le
Messager Popoli, have been banned and seized repeatedly.
Reporters often practice self-censorship as to reporting
official corruption, for fear of reprisals.
former glory days of rapid development in the 1980s have given
way to economic volatility.
The country’s GDP growth declined from 6 percent per
year in 1986-1993 to 3 percent in 1994.
Per capita GDP stood at US $532 in 1993/1994.
Main exports include crude oil, wood, coffee, tea,
bananas, cocoa, and cotton. In addition to the sharp decline in oil production,
the 1997 fall in oil prices has also exacerbated the country’s
economic situation. Additionally,
Cameroon remains highly indebted; its total foreign debt was
US$ 8.6 billion (1997), very high in relation to the GDP of
approximately US$ 6.6 billion.
International Confederation of
Free Trade Unions reported in its annual survey that
the government of Cameroon has interfered with independent
trade union activities since 1993, when the national union
center (CCTU) opposed economic austerity measures that had
been negotiated with the IMF. CCTU has reported that the government has tried
to divide the union by encouraging the creation of a rival
national center in 1995.
The privatization policies have proceeded.
to the ICFTU report, Cameroon’s 1991 Exporting Processing
Zones (EPZ) exempted employers from some labor code provisions.
Also, the CCTU reported that its representatives were
denied access to EPZ companies.
are several NGOs in Cameroon dedicated to women’s human rights
work, but according to some Cameroonian women’s human rights
activists, these organizations generally lack the basic training
and knowledge of women’s issues and of international human
rights instruments beyond the Universal Declaration of Human
Rights. Not only do they lack an understanding of non-discrimination
and equality issues, but they are even less informed about
gender discrimination. Cameroonian women activists told IWRAW
that advocacy is non-existent, and various organizations mistrust
one another and usually do not share information.
Moreover, according to Pauline Biyong, the president
of the League for Women’s and Children’s Education in Cameroon,
NGOs often lack the basic management and accounting skills
required for working relationships with domestic and foreign
agencies. Biyong pointed to a disturbing trend in the nonprofit
world to set up NGOs in response to donor programs instead
of developing an agenda based on the most important needs
and appealing to donors with that independent agenda.
In the preparation of this report, in addition to books, articles and
reports by Equality Now and Africa-based non-governmental
organizations, IWRAW also received information from several
well-informed women’s human rights activists in Cameroon,
some of whom requested
STATUS OF WOMEN IN CAMEROON
UNDER SPECIFIC ICESCR ARTICLES:
COVENANT ARTICLE 2: Non-Discrimination
and Obligation of States Parties
Preamble of the Constitution of Cameroon states that “human
beings, without distinction of race, religion, belief, possess
inalienable and sacred rights,” and Article 1(2) ensures equality
of all citizens before the law.
Yet, the Constitution does not contain a specific statement regarding
sex discrimination. According to certain women’s human rights
activists, the unequal status of women and girls in Cameroon
manifests itself in all spheres of life, and there is no evidence
that the government has taken measures to improve their status.
To the contrary, discriminatory administrative policies,
laws, cultural beliefs and attitudes hamper women’s enjoyment
of human rights. Government compliance with some of its obligations
under ICESCR and other international treaties has been ineffective,
as it has done little to change these practices and attitudes
against women. Women’s human rights activists report that
the creation of Ministry of Women’s Affairs has not made much
of a difference, as it has failed to initiate measures to
fight the widespread practices of forced marriage, domestic
abuse, female excision and other traditional discriminatory
practices arising out of customary laws.
sources emphasize that more decisive and effective action
is needed to change deep-rooted and culturally reinforced
attitudes. They recommended that the government give to CESCR
information on specific programs aimed at the advancement
of women in Cameroon and on the budget allocations to the
Ministry and other programs related to equal rights of women
and men. Moreover, some women’s activists, such as Pauline
Biyong, president of the League for Women’s and Children’s
Education in Cameroon, point out that the creation of the
special ministry for women, does not mean that issues of equality
should be limited to this body. Women’s status should be considered
by other governmental organs as well. According to Biyong, “Since women are involved
in all sectors, issues affecting women are therefore present
in all sectors.”
to NGO sources in Cameroon, the government-created National
Human Rights Commission deals with human rights in general
and does not address issues of inequality between women
and men, or discriminatory practices relating specifically
to women. Additionally,
investigation reports prepared by the Commission are not published;
nor are they made available to the public.
Women in Politics
are grossly underrepresented in politics.
Out of 100 political parties, only one is chaired by
a woman. Only ten out of the 180 members of the National
Assembly are women. There
are only three women ministers in the 50-member government.
All are in departments that traditionally have been deemed
appropriate for women, such as the Women’s and Social Affairs
Only 5.3 percent of sub-ministerial level positions
are held by women. On
the local level, there are no women mayors.
COVENANT ARTICLE 3: Equal Rights of Men and Women
Cameroonian legal system is based on customary law and on
the English and French legal systems. Section 27 (1) of Southern
Cameroon’s High Court Law (1955) states that: “The High Court
shall observe and enforce the observance of every native law
and custom which is not repugnant to natural justice, equity
and good conscience nor incompatible with any law for the
time being in force, and nothing in this law shall deprive
any person of the benefit of any such native law or custom.”
Equality Now reports that customary law —
which is discriminatory against women — often takes precedence
over other legislative enactments.
A good example is the customary inheritance law.
Rural Women and Customary Inheritance Law
66 percent of rural workers are women — traditionally and
culturally they are seen as responsible for providing for
— they hold only about one percent of land.
Nonetheless, despite a Supreme Court decision recognizing
women’s right to be granted land and the existence of Cameroon’s
Law of Succession, discriminatory customary inheritance law
still dominates. Women do not inherit property and estate letters
of administration are customarily issued to male relatives.
The customary law prevents female children
from inheriting real estate from parents.
Since, upon marriage, the female children leave the
family to join their husband’s family, parents prefer to give
property to sons who will remain in the family.
on women’s land ownership also lead to their economic and
social marginalization as, for instance, they make it very
difficult for women to obtain loans for which banks typically
Rural women are typically completely unaware
that the law guarantees equal access — a result of high illiteracy
levels and a lack of access to relevant information.
Only 45 percent of women in Cameroon are able to read
and write compared to 70 percent of men, and literacy levels
in rural areas are even lower.
Activists have appealed for greater attention
and the formation of programs aimed at increasing literacy
among women and a better application of the laws granting
women the right to inherit land, but the government has not
done enough to start changing the de facto inequality and economic marginalization
of women. Particularly,
it has not distributed widely enough information on the equal
rights of women, a failure that many activists see as the
main obstacle to change.
Age of Marriage
statutory age of consent to marriage for girls is lower than
for boys, 16 compared to 19 years.
Moreover, under predominant customary practices,
girls are deprived of the right to continue their schooling
and forced into marriage at an even earlier
age, especially in the northern part of Cameroon.
Teenage pregnancy remains at high levels —
11 percent of all births are by teens.
Polygamy/ Discrimination in Marriage and Divorce
constitutional guarantees recognizing women’s rights, women
and men do not enjoy equality in marriage.
By custom and law, polygamy
is the rule while polyandry is non-existent.
Spousal abuse under custom does not constitute grounds
for divorce. In some Northern provinces, some Lamibe men allegedly prevent their
wives and concubines from leaving their places of residence.
the event of divorce, particularly in the prevalent traditional
customary courts, custody of children over six years of age
is determined based on the husband’s wishes, since both children
and wife are deemed to belong to the husband. Custody disputes are sometimes settled depending
on whether or not the brideprice has been paid.
do not have control over joint property when a husband dies.
In such cases, the property may be taken by the husband’s
family and she may be obligated to continue
conjugal relations with the husband’s male kin.
361 of the Penal Code criminalizes adultery, but the provisions
are different depending upon whether the adulterer is the
wife or the husband. The
law provides that “(1) any married woman having sexual intercourse
with a man other than her husband shall be punished,” while
“(2) any married man having sexual intercourse in the matrimonial
home, or habitually having sexual intercourse elsewhere, with
a woman other than his wife or wives, shall be punished.”
While in the case of women all adultery is
a criminal offense, for men it is a crime depending on the
venue or if it is habitual.
Nationality Law stipulates that only the husband and not the
wife can confer citizenship on a foreign-born spouse.
COVENANT ARTICLE 6 and 7: Right to Work
and Right to Just and Favorable Conditions of Work
Choice of Employment
Civil Status Registration (Ordinance No. 81-02 of 29 June
1998) Art. 74 (1) states that a married woman “may exercise
a trade different from her husband.” Art. 74 (2), however, adds that “the husband may object to the exercise
of such a trade in the interest of the marriage or their children.”
This provision gives the husband the power to define
wife’s work, and it effectively denies a woman the right to
“freely choose” employment guaranteed under this Covenant
as it gives the husband the right to object.
Equal Opportunities in Employment
Cameroon government’s report to CESCR states that women increasingly
participate in the labor market and that they constitute more than twenty
percent of the workers, but only 5.2 percent of women are
found in skilled jobs. Consequently,
women work in low-level administrative positions.
The report admits that business employers are reluctant
to hire women because they do not have the desirable skills
as a result of their “limited access to training facilities.”
The government does not explain whether any
efforts have been made to increase women’s access to training
programs in order to make their skills more marketable, and
to create an opportunity to change their social and economic
marginalization and dependence.
training for women is unavailable for certain occupations
such as electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, and other skilled
crafts where better employment opportunities exist.
According to an article received from a
Cameroonian activist, limited occupational opportunities force
women to resort to employment in the informal sector, including
beer brewing (which is illegal), prostitution and baby-sitting.
Prostitution obviously has hazardous implications for
women, such as exposure to sexually transmitted diseases,
including high risk of AIDS/HIV infection. Baby-sitting, on the other hand, relegates women to low socio-economic
status, rewarding hard work with a low pay.
Protective Provisions in the Labor Code
Labor Code contains some protective provisions which apply
only to women, which put them at a disadvantage regarding
promotions and salary level. According to Equality Now and several other women’s advocates, the
protective measures should be removed or be applied to both
men and women. For example, Section 82 (1) provides that the work time for women and children
shall be less than 12 consecutive hours, and Section 82 (2)
prohibits women and children from working between 10 p.m.-6
Section 83 of the Labor Code provides that the Minister of
Labor has the power to restrict tasks that can be performed
by women and pregnant women.
Labor Code does not contain any protection from sexual harassment.
COVENANT ARTICLE 9 and 10: Right to Social Security
and Protection of the Family and of Mothers and Children
law does not provide adequate provisions for child protection
and child maintenance. Consequently, single mothers and victims of
teenage pregnancy suffer hardships while, as one Cameroonian
activist put it, “men continue to father children with impunity
and abandon them to the girls.”
COVENANT ARTICLE 12: Right to Physical and Mental Health
Violence Against Women
there are no reliable data on the extent of the problem, the
inferior status of women, and the considerable number of newspaper
reports (which is considered to record only a small fraction
of incidents), suggest that violence against women is widespread
in Cameroon. Wife
beating, for instance, is justified under custom.
The husband has the right to chastise his wife (degree
unspecified) and the wife cannot complain because it is assumed
that “she deserves the punishment.”
Although the law criminalizes rape, indecency
to a minor, and assault, there is no domestic abuse law. The existing laws do not impose effective punishment
against individuals who commit acts of violence against women
cultural attitudes make it extremely difficult for women and
girls to file complaints against their partners. Marital rape
is recognized as an offense under statutory law, but it is
culturally accepted that consent to marriage constitutes consent
to each sexual intercourse.
According to women’s human rights activists, the government
is complacent about the situation and has failed to take decisive
action to combat the problem, such as passing legislation
specifically prohibiting spousal abuse. The government has made no efforts to ensure
that law enforcement officials and public officers responsible
for investigating violence against women receive training
to understand the complexities of issues surrounding domestic
in cases where legal redress is available, reports are rarely
made to the police. An arrest and eventual prosecution is unlikely because the police
usually encourage the woman or girl to reconcile with her
partner. No domestic abuse advocacy programs, either
government sponsored or private, are in place.
There are no crisis centers or other facilities and
services to help women deal with the situations and lead them
through the legal process.
Genital Mutilation (FGM)
not widely practiced in Cameroon,
FGM is found in some parts of the country, especially
the far North and Southwest provinces. It involves the most severe form of the abuse,
infibulation, which is usually performed on preadolescent
girls. Although the government has acknowledged the
harmfulness of the practice and condemned it — including the
adoption of the National Action Plan against FGM
in 1999 — it has not taken steps to outlaw it.
It is unknown if any educational programs,
especially in the areas of the country where the practice
is known to occur, have been developed or planned to help
Reproductive Rights and Family Planning
to Melissa Ndinge Nambangi,
16 years of family planning policy in Cameroon has
failed to reduce fertility rates and infant and maternal mortality.
Cameroon has had a steady fertility rate of
5.8 children per woman (1991; compared with other countries
in the area: Benin 6.3 (1996), Senegal
6, Niger 6).
There is no evidence that women’s health has
improved and Cameroon continues to have a very high maternal
mortality rate. Complications
of pregnancy and childbirth is one of the leading causes of
death for women of reproductive age (one in 33 mothers die
the average for developing countries is
one in 20, and for developed countries it is one in 10,000).
to Nambangi, the cultural and societal ideal of high fertility
pose the main obstacle to change.
She cites studies conducted in other Sub-Saharan countries
with similar cultural patterns as in Cameroon. It is revealing that while 98 percent of men
knew of at least one contraceptive method and
84 percent approved of family planning, they did not
use them mainly because of cultural beliefs and suspicions.
According to Nambangi, in order to change the
underlying cultural patterns regarding family planning, more
effective strategies targeting both women and men are needed.
Moreover, apart from evidence that factors such as improved
and accessible education and economic independence have a
positive effect on contraceptive use among women, Nambangi also advocates that the government
make use of the mass media, and especially of television,
to promote family planning.
She demonstrates that this has been done successfully
in other countries in the region, such as Nigeria, where several
studies found that television played a significant role in
increasing the number of new patients at family planning clinics
in three Nigerian cities between 1985 and 1988.
is prohibited under Section 337 of the Cameroonian Penal Code,
with the exception of grave danger to mother’s health or if
the pregnancy has resulted from rape. Women face one-year imprisonment and a fine
of 200,000 francs if they obtain the abortion illegally.
The high levels of maternal mortality (see
above) may be associated with the unavailability of safe and
legal abortion, and with a high fertility rate.
COVENANT ARTICLES 13 and 14: Right to Education
schooling is mandatory to the age of 14, because of the 1993-1994
public sector budget cuts (spending on education decreased
from 4.3 percent of GDP in 92-93 to 1.9 percent of GDP in
96-97) and currency devaluation, many families are unable
to send their children to school.
Discrimination against girls and women in education
occurs as a result of patriarchal attitudes, including son
preference: it is
still common for families to send boys to school while girls
stay at home. Aside from considerations resulting from financial
constraints, there is an expectation that instead of going
to school, girls should help in crop farming, animal husbandry
and household activities. This common practice is evidenced by comparative
literacy rates: 68 percent of women over the age of 25 are
illiterate compared to 43 percent of men.
For women under the age of 25 the illiteracy rate stands
at 29 percent, and for men it is 15 percent.
Additionally, the number of girls enrolled
decreases with higher levels of education. Cameroonian women
activists recommend that the government give scholarships
to women to stimulate their school enrollment rates, which
would give them the chance to break the cycle of poverty and
REVIEWS BY OTHER UN HUMAN RIGHTS MECHANISMS:
Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial
Discrimination: Cameroon, 31 March 1998 (CERD/C/304/Add.53).
No recommendations concerning women were issued by this Committee.
Concluding Observations of the Human Rights Committee: Cameroon, 18 April
Suggestions and Recommendations:
Improve the situation of women, in particular by adopting
the necessary educational and other measures to overcome the
weight of customs and traditions and by proceeding as soon
as possible with its plan to amend the Family Code.