YAOUNDE - In Cameroon, a proposed update to the country’s penal code has sparked a fierce debate. The proposal criminalizes adultery and adds jail time for offenses like begging and falling behind on rent payments.
One of the most talked about provisions of the penal code changes is that it criminalizes adultery for men, making the act punishable by fines and prison time. The current code only penalizes extramarital relations for women.
Ethel Kum is with the Cameroon Network of Female Activists for the Respect of Women's Rights.
"It is absolutely good news for Cameroonian women whose rights were abused and relegated to the back ground while the men went on doing anything and they were free," Kum said
The proposal further assures widows of their rights to inherit their husband’s property. And it punishes perpetrators of harmful practices still common in parts of the country, like forcing a widow to marry her late husband’s brother.
Lawmakers say the current penal code is outdated and contains contradictory provisions inherited from French and English colonial rule. The laws haven't been revised in 51 years.
The lower house of parliament passed the new code Wednesday night after eight hours of heated debate.
Not all support changes
Cameroon’s justice minister, Laurent Esso, defended the changes, while 20 lawmakers led by Joseph Mbah Ndam, vice president of the National Assembly, staged a walkout.
The new code extends immunity from prosecution to government ministers, and reinstates the death penalty. Ndam said those additions are contrary to the constitution and some international conventions Cameroon has signed.
"The death penalty has a lot of consequences, not only to the one who is to be killed, but also to the one who executes the killing and even on the one on whose behalf the killing takes place. That is we the people. And so we are also like partakers of this killings and to me it is not correct,” Ndam said.
The Cameroonian bar council has also complained. The justice minister said the bar council was consulted in 2011 when work on the legislation began. But a member of the council, Lawyer Tebe Edwan, said their suggestions were not considered.
"Objections were raised. Objections were actually raised. In the northwest and southwest, we depend on received laws from Britain, our [former] colonial masters. And so we are still using the laws. For example we have the laws on matrimonial properties act. It states that the properties that the properties that the woman brought in before the marriage remain her own properties," Edwan said.
The new law includes provisions for property to be shared equally by spouses.
Fines for homosexuality
Some lawmakers had argued in favor of stiffer penalties for homosexuality, calling it un-African. But in the final proposal, the punishments remain the same, imprisonment for six months to five years and a fine of as much as $400.
There are also several new provisions. Tenants who fall behind on their rent by at least two months can get up to three years in jail.
Baba Soule, president of the Cameroon Association of Tenants, said that is a civil issue, not a criminal one.
He said it is scandalous to ask that people be sent to prison because they could not pay their rents for only two months. He said salaries are often delayed in Cameroon and tenants can have financial problems. He added the law should have given five months to pay.
The Senate must now vote on the code, and then it must be signed by President Paul Biya before it can go into effect. But there is little suspense. Biya proposed the revision to the code and the Senate is dominated by his CPDM ruling party.