top of page

Cameroon

Economic Empowerment

Women in Cameroon disproportionately suffer from poverty. While 39% of the national population lives in poverty, this rate is 51.5% for women [1]. This can be partly explained by unemployment: 23.1% of women and girls between 15 and 24 years old are not educated, employed or being trained, compared to 10.5% of men and boys. The gender gap, however, similarly exists among the employed population: 22.7% of women are employed but still impoverished, compared to 17.8% of men. Disabled women are disproportionately affected by poverty: while 3.5% of disabled men are unemployed, the rate rises to 5.3% for disabled women [2]. These numbers show that while Cameroon suffers from poverty in general, Cameroonian women are in a particularly vulnerable position.


There are various reasons for the poverty gender gap. Firstly, Cameroonian women spend a lot of their time on unpaid domestic work [3], which is prescribed by traditional social roles [4]. Women and girls over 10 years old spend 14.55% of their time on unpaid care and domestic work, whereas men only invest 4.73% of their time on them [5]. This means women spend 8.2 hours more per week than men on unpaid household chores. These household tasks involve preparing meals, collecting and storing water, caring for children’s hygiene and household hygiene, caring for dependents in the family and community such as the disabled, the elderly, the ill and orphans. At times of displacement, women’s workload increases greatly, as they need to care for more ill people and collecting water and firewood becomes more difficult [6]. The large amount of time devoted to unpaid domestic work means women are more affected by poverty than men.


The second reason is the fact that women have extremely access and control over economic resources. In all ethnic groups, men tend to control the family’s strategic assets such as land, livestock, and money while women only have a say on matters such as domestic utensils, food rationing, water and hygiene. This is shown by the fact that only 1.6% of women have a title on the land. This is because although women have access to their land for cultivation, they cannot inherit them from their parents and husbands [7]. Additionally, only 30.03% of women have an account at a financial institution or mobile-money-service provider compared to 39.24% of men [8]. Part of the reason why such disenfranchisement persists unchallenged is the lack of women in local political institutions and traditional prejudices that permeate legal decisions and executive actions [9].


Thirdly, regular conflicts in Cameroon disproportionately impact women’s economic conditions, as women make up 71.6% of the informal agricultural sector and many women have to abandon their sewing machine at times of conflict, which they rely on for tailoring and sewing jobs. Displacement following conflicts means these women lose their land, livestock and other productive assets, as well as water supply. Aside from that, women in conflicts have to travel long distances to obtain water, which means less time for them to engage in income-generating activities [10]. All these mean the consequences of violent conflicts are borne by women disproportionately.


Impoverished Cameroonian women’s economic welfare is not sufficiently recognised by the government. Although the law recognises the right to legal assistance for all unemployed people who lack resources, or those abandoned by their partners, urban and semi-urban areas are prioritised as the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family have most their offices there. As a consequence, rural Cameroonian women are disregarded, who form the bulk of the impoverished female population [11]. Also, the state only offers maternity cash benefits to 0.6% of mothers with new-born children, and only gives pensions to 1.5% of women above the statutory pensionable aged compared to 10.6% of men [12]. These mean that discrimination exists as to which women benefit from state assistance.


Aside from the poverty gap, female employees also earn less than their male counterparts in general. In local currency, female employees’ average hourly earnings is 633.5 francs, compared to 939.2 francs for male employees [13]. The reasons are manifold. Firstly, traditional social roles have meant Cameroonian women are confined to farm and retail work [14]. In the Northwest, for example, 72% of small retailers are women. For another example, women represent 71.6% of the informal agricultural work force [15]. Secondly, most young girls in university study humanities. Although science students have a more promising prospect of employment, only 32.3% of them are female [16]. Lastly, the law on equal pay and economic benefits is incomplete: only 50% of legal frameworks required by the sustainable development goal (SDG) to promote gender equality in employment and economic benefits are in place [17]. This shows that the gender pay gap is a complex issue that needs to be dealt with holistically.


Political Representation

The Cameroon government has made some efforts at achieving equal political representation for women. The Constitution recognises gender equality, and the government has supported women’s initiatives in the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) promoting gender equality. [18]. For example, in September 2011, the Global Conscience Initiative (GCI), an NGO, introduced their Gender equality Initiative to address the marginalisation of women in local politics, in order to instil good governance in the Traditional Councils and improve community ties. The GCI delivers gender equality workshops to young people, the Traditional Councils, and various social groups, observes Council sessions, and interviewing the female leaders to address their problems. To address obstacles to female political representation such as gender stereotypes, unequal access to education and conflicting public and domestic work commitments, the GCI also conducts needs assessment sessions with women in the community [19]. Therefore, there seems to be some efforts made to advance women’s political position in Cameroon.


However, equal political representation remains a severe problem in Cameroon. In the executive, women made up only 6% of the government in 2017, and only made up 8.3% of mayors from 2013 to 2018. Only one of the 23 candidates who stood for President in 2011 was a woman. This results from widespread prejudice that deems women unfit for leadership and made for only unpaid domestic work [20]. In peace-building activities, such as security operations and conflict resolution, women are also excluded despite being the majority of Cameroon’s young and adult population. When mentioned, their status is only that of victims. This is affected by popular notions: only 4.21% of the population see women as playing a role in conflict management [21]. This shows that despite making up the majority of the Cameroonian population, women’s voice is not sufficiently represented in governmental business.


The situation is slightly better in the legislature: in 2021, 33.89% of seats in national parliament were held by women [22], rising from 27.1% in 2017 [23]. In the lower chamber, female parliamentarians represent 67% of the female population, but this figure falls to 51% in the upper chamber [24]. Locally, 24.54% of elected seats in local deliberative bodies were women in 2021 [25]. These figures show that women are still significantly underrepresented in the law-making process. There are various reasons why this is so. Firstly, the lack of government resources and capabilities has meant powers of different branches of government overlap. For example, traditional councils undertake both legislative and judicial functions in the communities and are made up of almost entirely male village members who collect taxes and mediate low-level civil disputes [26]. Secondly, the government’s lack of recourses and competence has meant most decisions have to be undertaken by local traditional authorities, which are composed of one male chief who oversees a village, tribe, or region [27], his network of council and village notables who are exclusively men [28], and secret male societies and vigilante groups who provide checks on the male chief’s power [29]. This means men have a privileged access to public community meetings and take decisions that affect the predominantly female agricultural community [30]. Lastly, women’s heavy and unpaid domestic work has also meant less resting time and lower access to decision-making forums [31]. In view of the above, Cameroonian women face multi-layered barriers if they wish to have a voice in the political arena.


Healthcare

Cameroonian girls disproportionately suffer from severe malnutrition. 3.6% of girls suffer from it compared to 1.8% of boys [32]. This problem particularly affects pregnant and lactating women and girls. For example, in the area of Buea, the increase in food prices results in an insufficient and insufficiently varied diet for them [33]. Among them, many would be particularly vulnerable pregnant and lactating adolescents: 122.2 per every 1,000 adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years old gave birth in 2017 [34]. Malnutrition should therefore be a priority in efforts at achieving gender equality.


Apart from that, Cameroonian women and girls face barriers to sexual and reproductive healthcare. Firstly, periods are a sensitive topic to discuss in the family, which results in young girls not knowing what to do when their first period arrives [35]. As periods are considered dirty, women and girls are excluded from family activities during menstruation, which likely means their physical and mental health needs are not attended to [36]. For women and girls in conflicts, they risk having no access to sanitary materials when their periods arrive. In the south-west and north-west, for example, displacement due to the conflicts has forced girls to use toilet paper, tree leaves, sponges, or pieces of cloth to clean themselves [37]. This shows a serious case of period poverty that deserves significant domestic and international attention.


Secondly, pregnant women and girls encounter problems at childbirth. There are 529 maternal deaths per 100,000 child births [38]. This is partly due to the lack of modern healthcare, as only 69% of births are attended by skilled health personnel [39]. In some areas of the south-west and north-west, only 6% of women give birth in health centres. The rest of the women may practice traditional deliveries in the bush, due to limited access to health services. The lack of assistance during deliveries and management of obstetric complications associated with this method has contributed to an increase in maternal mortalities [40].


Adolescent girls are particularly affected by this problem, as 122.2 per every 1,000 adolescent girls between 15 and 19 years old gave birth as of 2017 [41]. This is partly due to the lack of modern family planning methods available: in 2018, only 44.9% of women had their need for family planning satisfied with modern methods [42]. As these adolescents become pregnant, they are forced to terminate their pregnancies due to their fear of social stigma, concerns about parental rejection, poverty and the impossibility of sharing future parental responsibilities with the father [43]. These girls are then forced to do it without modern methods: in the southwest and northwest, only 61% of them seek help at the hospital, and 56% of them find traditional doctors to help them rather than modern professionals. 28% of them abort their foetus by themselves, using drugs or other methods [44]. They are therefore a particularly vulnerable group facing the risk of maternal death and should be adequately assisted.


Last but not least, Cameroonian women are disproportionately affected by HIV: the HIV prevalence among people between 15 and 49 years old is 5% for women and 2.3% for men [45]. These women then risk having no treatment available: in the south west and north west, people in the bush have no access to antiretrovirals to manage their condition [46]. HIV is a complex issue, with multiple reasons contributing to this high rate of infection. Firstly, due to beliefs about contraceptive use, access to modern contraceptive methods is very limited, which means girls have to take risks when engaging in sexual activities. For example, in the south-west and north-west, the male condom remains the most common strategy to prevent sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies [47]. Another risk-taking activity women and girls have had to engage in is survival sex. In the south-west and north-west, for example, due to the lack of sanitary materials, girls have had to turn to survival sex for money. As they are unaware of protection measures they could use, they are more exposed to HIV than other people [48]. Thirdly, the endemic sexual violence women and girls suffer also expose them to HIV [49]. Only 48.5% of women between 15 and 49 years old are able to make their own informed decisions regarding sexual relations, contraceptive use and reproductive health care [50]. After sexual violence, these survivors have limited access to holistic health services that offer privacy, confidentiality, and financial assistance for women and girls in poverty, which deter women and girls from receiving timely treatment for HIV. The lack of PEP that is taken soon after a potential HIV infection to prevent the virus taking hold also means higher risk of HIV transmission [51]. Lastly, HIV-positive people on effective medication cannot pass on the virus. However, the lack of HIV medication for people in the bush, for example, increases the risk of contamination [52]. Cameroonian women and girls are therefore in a precarious situation in regards HIV transmission.


Education

Cameroonian girls have a high rate of illiteracy. In the north region of Cameroon, for example, more than one million girls between 10 and 19 years are illiterate, which amounts to 31.9% of all the girls in the region [53]. Even for girls who receive education, boys have a privileged access to education. 89% of girls are enrolled in primary or secondary school compared to 97% of boys [54], and only 53% of girls are enrolled in secondary school compared to 65% of boys [55]. For women over 25, only 32.5% of them have some level of secondary education compared to 39.2% of men [56]. Even for girls who manage to study in universities, they focus primarily on humanities and represent only 32.3% of students in sciences, which are deemed as more promising in terms of employment [57]. These data show that Cameroonian girls have a significantly lower access to education than boys in general.


There are manifold reasons why Cameroonian girls suffer a significant disadvantage in terms of education. The illiteracy of the girls’ family members may well mean they receive little to no education as well [58]. Long distances girls have to travel to go to school hinder their educational achievement [59]. The lack of personal hygiene materials and the lack of sanitation facilities also prevent girls from receiving proper education [60]. Poverty and costs of schooling often mean girls have to leave school early to make income for their families, or not to go to school at all [61], [62]. Regular conflicts, reduced safety conditions and displacement that follow the conflicts also mean that many girls never go to school [63]. Educational inequality in Cameroon is therefore a multi-faceted issue that should be dealt with holistically.


One of the most important reasons for girls’ under-education is traditional values [64]. The girls’ families often do not believe in their ability to study [65]. In northern Cameroon, some families, even if they are university-educated, believe that only boys have the right to higher education and that it is sufficient for girls to know how to read and write. In this markedly Muslim region, many people believe that an “overly” educated wife will be disobedient, arrogant, and tempted to showing off their intelligence to their husband [66]. Traditional norms therefore serve to undermine girls’ potential to become educated intellectuals and contribute to the society.


Traditional norms within the family also mean that youth pregnancy and child marriage might mean an end to girls’ education [67]. In Cameroon, 10.7% of women between 20 and 24 years were married before they turned 15, and 29.8% of them were married before 18. The adolescent birth rate among 15- to 19-year-olds was 12.22% in 2017, up from 11.9% in 2014 [68]. 12% of girls are held back in their studies because of early pregnancy, and 11.4% because of early marriage [69]. This is because the girls’ relatives see early pregnancy as a sign that the girls have chosen to discontinue their studies, and thus stop paying for their studies and force them out of them [70]. Many families also consider their daughters to be an asset to be married to another family in return for dowry. The girls are then considered commodities of their husband [71]. Early pregnancy and child marriage in Cameroon are therefore cultural issues that should be tackled from the root.


These traditional norms also mean girls face a hostile family environment even when they try to pursue their studies. When school fees cannot be paid for every child, boys typically go to class while girls are responsible for domestic chores and small trade to support the family [72]. Even when they manage to get educated, heavy household duties may mean they can only study late at night when everyone else is already sleeping. This results in irregular sleeping schedules and drowsiness in class [73]. Moreover, daughters often face controlling and abusive fathers who impose disproportionate punishments on them for minor mistakes [74]. Traditional family norms are therefore a giant obstacle to Cameroonian girls’ educational equality.


Even when girls go to school, they are faced with a disproportionate amount of discrimination, sexual harassment and violence which hinders their educational achievement [75]. Teaching practices, school administration’s attitude and the girls’ peers’ attitude can all discriminate against them, and evaluation methods are often fundamentally expressive. Girls describe instances of sexual harassment by teachers, particularly physical education instructors. They face aggressive and violent behaviour from the boys who try to show their authority over the girls, which leads to strained relationships, depression and negative self-image. Girls are thereby discouraged from continuing their studies [76]. Gender-equal culture within school should therefore be a priority alongside improving traditional family culture.


The current status quo of unequal educational attainment is maintained by a legal and political environment that does not sufficiently promote girls’ educational rights. Although the Cameroonian Penal Code punishes families that do not send children to school when they have the financial capabilities, the Cameroonian law does not track the progress of the girls at school or support girls who cannot afford secondary education [77]. Even where policies are in place, such as the principle of co-education and gender ratios, they are not always respected [78]. The lack of women in politics, as well as traditional prejudices that permeate legal decisions and executive actions, means that the question of educational equality is not always regarded as significant [79]. In spite of the above, some efforts have been made by governmental and non-governmental forces. The Cameroonian government has published their National Development Strategy 2020-2030 which aims to put in place a mechanism that guarantees equal access to education and training for girls and boys [80]. UNICEF also assists with the efforts by advocacy and supplying resources and classroom materials to schools [81]. It is hoped that more assistance can come from all sides to safeguard girls’ academic future.


Violence Against Women

Violence against women in Cameroon is rampant. In the far north region, for example, 97% of cases of genber-based violence from February 2018 to June 2019 are reported by women [82]. Recent killings of Larissa Azenta, Lizette and Comfort Tumassang, which saw their bodies burnt or their head cut off, spurred fear among Cameroonian women [83]. In the far north, displaced girls and women are sometimes used as suicide bombers [84]. They are kidnapped and detained as “bargaining chips” with the government and coerced into marriages by armed groups, sometimes after sexual assault [85], despite the penal code advising that consent to marriage cannot be obtained by force. [86]. Apart from armed groups, adolescent girls in the far north also face violence from their community. In the south-west, women and girls have had resources or opportunity denied to them [87]. Breast ironing and female genital mutilation are also documented [88]: 1.4% of girls and women between 15 and 49 years old have undergone female genital mutilation or cutting. [89]. There are therefore various kinds of violence Cameroonian women and girls face, each deserving its own special attention.


These forms of violence were exacerbated by military conflicts in Cameroon [90]. Displacement forces people to share shelter, water collection points, toilets and showers, reducing privacy and increasing the risk of violence. The lack of natural resources like water and firewood also forces women and girls to walk long distances in forests and bushes, exposing them to violence from groups like Boko haram [91]. Despite the heightened risk of gender-based violence, the protection sectors and the humanitarian aid efforts remain underfunded. The crises also received limited media coverage [92]. Peacebuilding in Cameroon is therefore vital for women’s and girls’ safety from violence.


State indifference to high levels of violence against women, coupled with traditional prejudices that permeate law and policy, also perpetuates this problem [93], [94]. Only 50% of legal frameworks required by sustainable development goals (SDG) to eliminate violence against women are in place, for example [95]. This partly results from a lack of women in key positions of political power [96]. Female political representation and political sensitivity to this issue are therefore crucial to efforts to eliminate gender-based violence.


One significant form of violence Cameroonian women and girls face is sexual harassment and violence. 9.8% of Cameroonian women were subjected to sexual violence in the previous 12 months [97]. In the far north region, from February 2018 to June 2019, 12% of cases of violence against women are sexual violence. Women form the majority of cases of sexual violence, although boys and men also suffer it: in June, 89% of registered survivors in south-west and north-west were girls and women and 11% were boys and men [98]. Children are especially vulnerable to such violence: 7.2% of women between 18 and 29 years already experienced sexual violence before they reached 18, compared to 2.1% of men [99]. In peri-urban and local areas, girls and women are often harassed when they go to the bathroom and toilets, pushing them to go there only after dark. In the far north, north-west and south-west, teenage girls separated from their parents sometimes have to work as maids for their subsistence, increasing their vulnerability to sexual assault. Increase in food prices, such as in Buea, also exposes girls to sexual exploitation in exchange for food [100]. Sexual violence is therefore a rampant form of violence Cameroonian women and girls face and allows zero tolerance.


Similar to other forms of violence, sexual violence is also exacerbated by regular conflicts in Cameroon. Women and girls’ lower social and economic status, compounded by displacement, makes them the most vulnerable category. They as well as men and boys face sexual harassment and violence from armed groups, when they are forced to travel long distances for firewood and water. Sometimes, they also have to provide sex in exchange for the release of their husbands and sons [101]. Peace and security are thus inextricably linked to all forms of violence against women and girls.


Sexual violence in Cameroon is under-reported to the police. Cases of violence against men are almost never reported, partly because Cameroon’s penal code does not provide for rape against the male population and lawyers are forced to use the term “forced homosexuality”. There are multiple reasons for the underreporting. There is a lack of formal referral mechanism that guide survivors to report their experience, and services available to the survivors are also inadequate: health centres do not provide the privacy and confidentiality needed for survivors to feel safe about opening up, and the lack of financial support over medical costs and forensic certificates deters survivors from seeking medical help. Survivors might fear that they will be arrested by the police, or that the police will not guarantee their safety. Social stigma is a major factor. There is a perception that raped women or girls are a “torn cloth” and have little chance of finding a husband, and women and girls are sometimes forced to marry the perpetrator due to this stigma. Survivors also risk being disbelieved or blamed for provoking the sexual violence or wearing an inadequate outfit. Finally, victims fear the power that perpetrators hold over them including the possibility of retaliation [102]. The problem of sexual violence in Cameroon should therefore be dealt with in a comprehensive way that is sensitive to the cultural issues underneath.


Domestic violence is another significant form of violence against women in Cameroon. According to UN Women, in 2012, 51% of women experienced physical and/or sexual domestic violence in their lifetime [103]. In 2018, 22% of women between 15 and 49 years reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months [104]. In the far north, domestic violence take up 84% of cases of gender-based violence [105]. Domestic violence takes many forms. The Inter-agency GenCap advisor for Cameroon, Delphine Brun, states that 39.8% of married women face emotional violence and 14.5% received sexual violence from their intimate partner [106]. 20.1% of women report having been forced to have sex during their first sexual relationship, and in the far north, some men, threatened by their diminishing economic role, confiscated official documents of their wives required for humanitarian aids [107]. Domestic abuse against men should not be ignored: while domestic violence is underreported to the police, domestic violence against men is virtually not reported [108].


One reason for the high rate of domestic is the perception that there economic and social status is threatened. In the south-west and north-west where conflicts and crises occur, men find it “devirilizing” to have diminished economic power, being unemployed and unable to provide for the family. This, combined with permissible social norms for domestic violence, leads to men resorting to domestic violence to assert their authority and domination over their spouse [109]. Insufficient legal support for domestic violence survivors is another factor: marital rape is still not criminalised [110], [111]. Although the Penal Code was updated in 2016 to give women and men equal rights to sue for divorce, the courts are dominated by men, contributing to the court system’s insensitivity to abused women’s experiences such as lengthened proceedings and unaffordability [112]. Domestic violence in Cameroon should therefore be handled with measures aimed at improving the economy, transforming the social norms and strengthening legal support.


Child marriage is also a severe problem faced by Cameroonian girls. 10.7% of women between 20 and 24 years were already married before the age of 15 and 29.8% before 18 [113]. This has been exacerbated by the ongoing humanitarian crisis, pushing girls to get married between 14 and 17 years old, especially those who had stopped education [114]. This is because sending the girls out to another family helps ease economic burdens where feeding all family members becomes more difficult. Increasing sexual violence during the conflict also pressures girls to marry early out of stigma associated with rape. Early marriage is also a strategy to prevent early pregnancy outside marriage [115]. There are therefore many socio-economic factors at play worsening the problem of child marriage, with conflicts and crises being the main factors.


The law does not give adequate support to girls faced with child marriage. Although Cameroon ratified the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which sets the minimum age of marriage at the start of adulthood [116]. and the penal code criminalises early and forced child marriage, marriage of girls under the age of 15 is still allowed if the president allows it for “serious reasons” [119]. With parental permission, children over the age of 15 are also able to get married [118]. Further, laws relating to child marriage are published mostly in French and sometimes in English, which means girls most likely to be affected by child marriage are not able to understand them [120]. Cameroonian law therefore needs to take the harm resulting from child marriage more seriously.


Frontline Services:

 

Further Reading


[1] OECD, “Cameroon”, (2019), Social Institutions and Gender Index.

[2] Commission on the Status of Women, “Elimination and Prevention of Violence Against Women and Girls”, (2013), Report of the 57th Session.

[3] Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom – Cameroon, “Women’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Cameroon”, (2019), Parallel Report to the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

3 views

Comments


bottom of page