YAOUNDE - On the occasion of International Women's Day (March 8), more than 20,000 Cameroon women from rural and urban areas have assembled in the central African state's capital Yaounde to press for their rights to education and decision making while urging a stop to early marriages and harmful traditional practices.
A group of women at the central market in Cameroon's capital Yaounde sing that they, like their peers all over Africa, are longing to be freed from the bondage of strong traditional practices that impede their emancipation and wellbeing. Among them is female activist Emmanuella Mokake of the NGO Cameroon women for Participating in Development. Mokake says her NGO is working to change the perception that women should only bring up babies, carry out domestic chores and work in farms.
"Women and their human rights and women gender equality has never been a war against men because it is normally very misconstrued. Women have realized that they are no more compelled to endure domestic violence because it hampers on their human rights," she said. "Women are setting out now to say no, enough of this battery. If any man beats a woman, the law under assault and battery clearly handles that."
Mokake said they were asking Cameroon to ratify the Maputo Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa' which it signed in 2006 and respect the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women, ratified the country in 2005.
The tens of thousands of women gathered Sunday in Yaounde said they were unhappy that strong traditional practices still encourage female genital mutilation and early marriages. Early and forced marriages are prevalent in rural areas where girls as young as 12 are married and widows forced to marry the brother of the deceased husband.
The women gathered Sunday also talked about illiteracy, which remained high among women because many families prefer to send only boys to school and ask the girls to accompany their mothers to the farm before getting married at early ages.
Another issue is that of access to and ownership of land in a country where most men own most of the land and prefer selling or handing it over only to their male children.
The United Nations reports that Cameroon's laws remain deeply discriminatory towards women and legal reforms are needed to increase protection of women’s human rights. It also states that customary law is applied by traditional rulers, some who still encourage discriminatory practices.
Cameroon law set 15 years as the minimum age for marriage for girls and 18 years for boys.
Women make up 52 percent of the adult population in Cameroon but only 28 percent of them are registered voters, according to Cameroon election management body ELECAM.
Hind Jalal, representative of U.N. Women Cameroon, says women's participation in decision making will improve the perception some men have about them.
"We must amend the electoral code to make it strongly and explicitly mentioning gender parity and to push political stakeholders to be more assertive because bringing women in the driving seat will bring prosperity and a better future for Cameroon," she said.
Marie-Therese Abena Ondou, Cameroon minister of women's empowerment and the family, says in spite of the challenges, much has been done to respect the issue as there are 58 women in the 180 member lower house of parliament and 36 women are mayors in the country that has over 380 councils.
"Training sessions were carried out to teach them how to sell their [political] programs. Politics was reserved for men and if women have to move forward, they need the support of men," she said. Women are capable and women have also dared because many of them were not even brave enough to postulate. The environment is not friendly. Tradition has to change. We keep good tradition but we should give up the bad tradition."
Ondou said the government was taking all necessary measures to improve access to education for women and girls with a particular focus on rural areas and by carrying out public awareness-raising campaigns.