Women in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon face a brutal nexus of violence and hunger. As long as women remain under the domination of forms of violence – including the denial of their right to food - they will be non-citizens, says Aîssa Ngatansou Doumara.
Read this article in French.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations) “every human being, every citizen of an ordinary country, has the right to food necessary to his or her survival; every woman, man and child, alone or in community with others, must at all times have physical and economic access to adequate food or means for its procurement.” The reality for women who are the victims or survivors of violence in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon is very different. Since 1996, the year when the Association for the Struggle against Violence against Women in the Extreme North Region of Cameroon (ALVF.EN) was founded, thousands of women have come to us to ask for help. They face many obstacles which prevent them from relieving their hunger and from fully enjoying their right to food. These obstacles are hard to overcome because their hunger is deeply engrained in the patriarchal nature of Cameroonian society.
The Extreme North Region of Cameroon is a predominantly patriarchal area where discrimination is fuelled by the weight of customs and traditions, ignorance of laws and confusion between local folklaw and religion. In the region we live according to two coexisting judicial systems: written law and customary law. In this context, women’s inferior status in society is socially accepted and maintained by the patriarchal system; women remain in a situation of economic dependence, with poor purchasing power and problems accessing vital resources such as land and credit.
A study by the network Dynamique Citoyenne in 2009 revealed that two out of three inhabitants of Cameroon’s Extreme North Region were living on less than 200 F CFA (0.42 dollars) a day and in 2007 39.9% of the national population were living beneath the poverty line. Poverty was more pronounced in rural areas where 55% are woman. This trend conforms to the widely held belief that people – and especially women - in sub-Saharan Africa are often unable to procure a good quantity and quality of food. The situation is even worse for women who have undergone violence.
The life of a woman who is the victim or a survivor of violence is a sorry picture; it shows exactly what it means to have your human rights denied. More often than not, these women struggle to meet their basic needs, such as securing a roof over their heads, staying healthy and accessing clothing and food. I remember vividly the day when a young woman in her twenties arrived at the drop in centre of ALVF.EN where I work, holding in her arms a baby who was just a few days old. Her needs were clear: she was hungry and she wanted something to eat. Once she had eaten, and only then, she explained that she wanted us to help her find her partner and force him to take care of them. Another day a young mother arrived at our drop in. She had hardly come through the door when she asked if she could have a mat to lie down on. When we took her to the hospital, they confirmed that she was suffering from malnutrition.
Women’s dependency on male family members in Cameroon explains their lack of access to resources, most significantly to capital, technology, drinkable water, sufficient quantities of food and land to grow food themselves. Although the law recognises the equal right to land and property for all women and men without distinction, as set out in Ordinance 74-1 of July 6th 1974 to establish rules governing land tenure, in reality the legal texts are outdated and their contents are unclear and difficult to interpret.
Cameroonian women who live in rural areas often work in difficult conditions, growing food products such as cereal and legumes on pieces of land which they will never own. Yet it is women who support family agriculture; it is women who are the guarantors of food security and food sovereignty. In spite of this, women themselves are seen as ‘property’ that belongs to the community, to be owned by a male member of her entourage: a husband, a brother or a cousin, and they remain generally excluded from the right to own and cultivate their own land. Given its severe consequences, this denial of access to the means of production constitutes a form of violence against women.
We often come across cases where the family house is sold by the husband, or his brothers in the case of the former’s death, leaving the woman and her children in a state of dire need without a roof for shelter or a small plot of land on which to grow food. These women live in silence, undergoing invisible forms of violence here in Cameroon. This problem is not new, however it is now so widespread that in 2011 the United Nations declared June 23rd International Widows’ Day in an effort to raise awareness. Educational tools to combat the degrading ‘rites of widowhood’ have been published in Cameroon and brought into the mainstream by organisations like ALVF and the International Circle for the Promotion of Creation (CIPCRE).
At first glance, the political context seems to provide some hope for change. That is, if we consider certain national social policies and Cameroon’s framework legislation which protects women. Government policy for the period 2010-2035 is outlined in the Growth and Employment Strategy Document. In the chapter Governance and State of Law it is affirmed that “in particular in the context of the protection of individual rights, the government will intensify the fight against violence against women.” In line with this policy commitment, the Minister for the Promotion of Women and Families announced the National Strategy to Combat Gender Based Violence in 2011. Awareness raising seminars were organised all across the country and copies of the action plan were distributed to women’s organisations like our own.
The National Strategy aims to introduce measures and coordinated actions with a view to mounting an effective fight against the scourge of violence against women. In doing so, it cites the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which Cameroon adopted on December 16th 1966 and ratified on June 27th 1994. The Covenant recognises that each person has the right to enjoy just and equitable working conditions, to have a decent standard of living and to enjoy mental and physical health.
This expression of will on the part of the government calls on all parties to take note of everything that must be done to protect victims and survivors of violence and to assure their right to a decent standard of living, including their right to food. At present it is impossible to evaluate the effectiveness of its contents and the extent to which it has been implemented. The Strategy may give a nod to the relationship between violence against women and the right to food but this needs to be tackled in a specific way. To date, the government’s actions have been insufficient. The state needs to recognise that speaking about hunger inevitably comes back down to food, to the means and resources necessary to procure it, to policies on land ownership, agriculture, cattle rearing and fishing, all of which still exclude women.
One of the first things that the government should do is adopt and promulgate the Code for the Person and the Family which is currently still pending adoption. In conjunction with this, the government should employ a gendered approach in policies and guidelines which deal with the issue of access to land and means of production; revise Ordinance number 74-1 of July 6th 1974 to establish rules governing land tenure and the Decree of Application Fixing the Conditions for Obtaining Land Ownership Rights so that they take into account the rights of women; fully roll out the National Strategy to Combat Gender Based Violence and organise information workshops and educational programmes to promote citizenship and the equal right to inheritance and land ownership enjoyed by men and women. Law and action go together; the first constitutes the reference point for the latter.
The actions of civil society organisations offer some guidance on effective solutions. The Cameroonian Movement for the Right to Food (MOCADA), for example, continues to lead awareness raising activities on the right to food as well as advocacy to improve legal instruments which guide the right to food in Cameroon. These solutions can only be achieved with the participation of all social actors; everybody must play their role as a citizen.
Violence against women must be vehemently and relentlessly combatted because it excludes victims and survivors from realising almost all their other rights. As long as women remain under the domination of forms of violence they will be non-citizens. The global community will be deprived of more than half of the human resources at hand and more than half of its full potential.