Cameroon is observing the annual United Nations 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, which run from November 24 to December 10 and this year focus on the rights of widows.
In Cameroon, many women who lose their husbands are forced to undergo dangerous traditional rituals to prove they didn’t cause their husbands’ deaths.
Marie Noel Nnanga lost her husband last year. The 26-year-old said that, like other widows, she was forced to go through cruel traditional rites practiced in her Beti ethnic group.
She said a woman is not allowed to bathe from the moment her husband dies until his burial and sometimes is forced to stay naked in a room with no food. The isolation can last for months. Widows are punished as if they were responsible for their husbands' deaths, Nnanga said.
Cameroon has close to 300 ethnic groups and an abundance of customs and practices. Some are harsh to women but staunchly defended in many communities here.
Awemo Mathiew, representing the Bafut chiefs’ palace in northwestern Cameroon, said the rationale for many of the rites is to purify the widow, purging her of the bad luck brought about by her husband’s death.
"These are traditional practices that we inherited from our forefathers and we must conserve them. We will never change them and we will make sure that our children continue practicing them," Mathiew said.
Educating traditional communities on women's rights and how they can fit in with local customs is a long process.
Marie Theres Abena Ondoua, Cameroon's minister for women’s empowerment, said such traditions disrespect women and relegate them to secondary roles in society from the time they are born.
In her country, "it is normal to give a child to marriage before she is even conceived," Abena Ondoua said. That "very bad practice ... does not permit the young girl to go to school or to become a normal adult, because when you are given away to get married before you are even born, what is your future?"
Abena Ondoua said the government and activists have developed programs to help families understand that girls have the same rights as boys. With broader education, such practices will stop within a generation, she said.
Cameroon is signatory of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, adopted in 1979 by the U.N. General Assembly.
The International Federation of Women Lawyers reports that despite laws to protect women and criminalize violent acts such as widowhood rituals, Cameroon, like many nations, fails to enforce the laws.
Changing that, activists say, will take not only education but also political will at the highest levels.