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    Country Reports


Initial report (Addendum) dated 22 January 1998 (E/1990/5/Add.35)

The 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. [1] 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.


Political History

Cameroon 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 [2] 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 over legislation.


Freedom of  Expression

Mass Media

According 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. [3]  



Cameroon's 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. [4]


Worker Rights

The 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. [5]


According 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.


Women’s NGOs

There 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. [6]



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 anonymity.






COVENANT ARTICLE 2: Non-Discrimination

and Obligation of States Parties


The 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. [7]  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.


IWRAW 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.” [8]


According 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. [9]    


Women in Politics

Women 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 Ministries. [10]   Only 5.3 percent of sub-ministerial level positions are held by women.  On the local level, there are no women mayors. [11]  



COVENANT ARTICLE 3: Equal Rights of Men and Women


The 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.” [12]    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

Although 66 percent of rural workers are women — traditionally and culturally they are seen as responsible for providing for the family [13] — 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. [14]   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.


Limits 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 require collateral. [15]   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. [16]   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

The statutory age of consent to marriage for girls is lower than for boys, 16 compared to 19 years. [17] Moreover, under predominant customary practices, girls are  deprived of the right to continue their schooling after marriage [18] 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. [19]  


Polygamy/ Discrimination in Marriage and Divorce

Despite 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. [20]


In 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. 


Women 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. [21]



Section 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.” [22]   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.



Cameroon’s Nationality Law stipulates that only the husband and not the wife can confer citizenship on a foreign-born spouse. [23]



COVENANT ARTICLE 6 and 7: Right to Work

and Right to Just and Favorable Conditions of Work


Choice of Employment

The 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. [24]  





Equal Opportunities in Employment

The 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.” [25]   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. 


Furthermore, training for women is unavailable for certain occupations such as electrical work, plumbing, carpentry, and other skilled crafts where better employment opportunities exist. [26] 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. [27]


Protective Provisions in the Labor Code

The 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 a.m.  Additionally, 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.


The 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


The 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.” [28]



COVENANT ARTICLE 12: Right to Physical and Mental Health


Violence Against Women

Although 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.” [29]   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 and girls. 

Additionally, 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 assault. 


Even 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. [30]


Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Although 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. [31]   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 eradicate it.


Reproductive Rights and Family Planning


Family Planning

According to Melissa Ndinge Nambangi,  16 years of family planning policy in Cameroon has failed to reduce fertility rates and infant and maternal mortality. [32]    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). [33]    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 in childbirth; [34] the average for developing countries is one in 20, and for developed countries it is one in 10,000). [35]  


According 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. [36]   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. [37]



Abortion 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. [38] 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


Although 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. [39]   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 dependence.





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 1994 (CCPR/C/79/Add.33).


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.

[1] Lonely Planet, Destination Cameroon, available at: www.lonelyplanet.com/dest/afr/cam.htm, accessed on 13 July 1999.

[2] Dr. Elizabeth Vukeh Tamajong, Report on the Human Rights Violation on Women in Cameroon Since 1990  (20 June 1999, Yaounde, Cameroon).

[3] Committee to Protect Journalists, Country Report: Cameroon (31 December 1998), available at www.cpj.org.

[4] “CAMEROON: Review,” Janet Matthews Information Services Quest Economics Database/Africa Review World of Information, July 1999, Nexis, 15 October 1999.

[5] International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 1999 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights : Cameroon  (Brussels: International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, 1997), 14-15.

[6] [6] “Stronger NGOs Needed for Grassroots Work,” Africa Recovery (August 1998): 32.

[7] Equality Now, Cameroon.  Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Committee, 67th session, October 1999, 1.

[8] “Stronger NGOs Needed for Grassroots Work.”

[9]   Information received from an NGO source in Cameroon, 1999.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Equality Now, 1.

[12] Ibid., 1.

[13] Charity Tatah Mentan, Social Origins of the Declining Status of the Cameroonian Women  (1997, unpublished article).

[14] Equality Now, 1.

[15] Tansa Musa, “Cameroon: Women Journalists Attack Biased Customary Law,” Inter Press Service, 13 April 1995, Nexis (25 August 1999).

[16] Tansa Musa.

[17] Information received from an NGO source in Cameroon, 1999.

[18] Dr. Elizabeth Vukeh Tamajong.

[19] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, Where Women Stand: An International Report on the Status of Women in 140 Countries (1997-1998) (New York: Random House, 1997), 502.

[20] Information received from an NGO source in Cameroon, 1999.

[21] Dr. Elizabeth Vukeh Tamajong.

[22] Equality Now, 2.

[23] Ibid., 2.

[24] The Civil Status Registration (Ordinance No. 81-02 of 29 June 1981) cited in Equality Now, Words and Deeds: Holding Governments Accountable in the Beijing+5 Review Process, Women’s Action 16.1 (July 1999):19-20.

[25] United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,  Initial report submitted by States parties under articles 16 and 17 of the ICESCR: Cameroon (Addendum) dated 22 January 1998 (E/1990/5/Add.35): 3.

[26] Equality Now, 4.

[27] Charity Tatah Mentan, Social Origins of the Declining Status of the Cameroonian Women  (1997, unpublished article).

[28] Information received from an NGO source in Cameroon, 1999.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] As of fall 1999, FGM has been outlawed in six African nations: Burkina Faso, Central African Republic, Djibouti, Ghana, Guinea and Togo.

[32] Melissa Ndinge Nambangi, Television and Family Planning: A Case Study in Cameroon, Masters thesis, University of Minnesota, July 1998.

[33] “Benin: Women, Poverty and Discrimination,” Women’s International Network (WIN News) v. 25, no. 1 (31 January 1999):47.

[34] Naomi Neft and Ann D. Levine, 506.

[35] Mimi Mann, “For African Women, Abortion Debate Overshadows Real Problems,” Associated Press, 6 September 1994, Nexis (25 August 1999).

[36] Melissa Ndinge Nambangi,  56.

[37] Ibid., 77.

[38] Equality Now, 4.

[39] Ibid., 4




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