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Maputo Protocol Ratification Sparks Row in Cameroon

A countrywide debate has erupted in Cameroon over the Maputo Protocol, a document created by the African Union that guarantees certain rights to women.

Not everyone likes it: the Catholic Church in Cameroon is leading the fight to keep the government from endorsing the protocol, which has already been signed by 45 countries, and ratified by Cameroon's parliament. The church says it's a Trojan horse aimed at legalizing abortion and homosexuality. It wants to keep the Parliament from making the country's law conform to the protocol.

The bone of contention is Article 14, which forbids all forms of discrimination based on sex. It gives women control over whom they will marry and whether they want to have children. It also allows abortion in the case of rape or incest. Current law allows abortion only if there is a threat to the life of the mother or the fetus.

Cameroon's Christian and Muslim communities sometimes participate in the marches and demonstrations against the protocol arranged by the Catholic Church.

Among the politicians joining the fray is Chief Albert Ngwana, the head of the Cardinal Democratic Party. He says, "Mine is a political demonstration and we're fighting right now that the Constitution must not be amended and the penal code must not be amended to legalize abortion."

Cardinal Christian Tumi is the Archbishop of Douala and a staunch critic of President Paul Biya, who has held office for 27 years. He says it's regrettable that Mr. Biya, a Catholic and former seminarian, has decided to endorse the protocol.

The prelate says abortion is murder and unacceptable to the Church, whether it's for medical reasons, incest or rape as stipulated in the document. Critics call it a dangerous blueprint that will overturn traditional values that promote life and encourage specific roles for the sexes: boys are raised to be breadwinners, and women are to stay home and bear children.

They say the protocol was not inspired by Africans, but by European organizations like the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation. They say it's an attempt to limit Africa's population.

Others are angry that the document, promoted as an instrument to eradicate female circumcision, mentions the practice only once in all its 23 pages.

Critics say the protocol will endanger tradition by encouraging respect for gay men and lesbians and by promoting same-sex marriages.

There are no organized pro-choice or gay lobbying groups in Cameroon so there are very few public voices in support of gay rights, including gay marriage. However, one lesbian agreed to speak on condition of anonymity. She says she's in favor of the Maputo Protocol partly because she was born homosexual and is following her nature. She says God created all people, including gays, and it is wrong to judge people on their sexual orientation. She hopes the protocol will bring her relief from the strain of hiding her secret from the public. She also says women should be permitted to choose abortion if pregnancy endangers their physical or mental health.

Other supporters say there's nothing in the document that protects gays or lends support to gay marriage. They say it would promote gender equality and strike down legal barriers that keep women out of politics.

Cardinal Christian Tumi is hoping for public support for his point of view. He's organizing demonstrations and is backing a petition that will be delivered to President Biya.

A sampling of people on the street shows mixed reactions:

- "Our country is allowing abortion and homosexuality. I think it's a trap."

- "The protocol is not bad because the aim was to protect the rights of the African woman; give her an opportunity to inherit property and fight against female genital mutilation."

- "We must not abide by it – we as women and as Africans."

- "The protocol is not bad, especially at this particular time because the high rate of conception; in fact, it speaks volumes."

- "… begin to think that the world is coming to an end. Those are signs of the end of time."

The protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights was adopted in July 2003, in Maputo, Mozambique. It was created to end all forms of discrimination against African women. About half of the 53 African Union countries that signed the protocol have ratified it. Meantime, the government has yet to formally react to opposition rallies and has not set a deadline for bringing the nation's laws into conformity with the document.