Customary law ostensibly provides for equal rights and status; however, men may limit women's rights regarding inheritance and employment, and some traditional legal systems treat wives as the legal property of their husbands.
Although many women in Cameroon are economically empowered and active in civil society, they often lack the opportunity to enter politics and participate in their country's male-dominated political sector.
Henriette Ekwe Ebongo, a journalist and publisher of Bebela - a weekly independent newspaper - and a founding member of Transparency International in Cameroon, made that point March 7 at a roundtable discussion at the U.S. Department of State. Ekwe was in Washington to be honored at the 2011 International Women of Courage Awards.
Ekwe was selected for this award in recognition of her lifelong devotion to advancing press freedom, freedom of expression, the recognition of human rights, good governance and gender equality.
Ekwe said that in Cameroon, men dominate the political sphere. As a result, many Cameroonian women have concentrated their efforts in civil society and in creating their own nongovernmental organizations, or in working with organizations like the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund...
Ekwe said many women in Cameroon are educated, and many are business savvy as well, working in the markets and in many other businesses.
She explained that if a family has to choose between sending a son or a daughter to school, they don't educate the daughter. The son is educated while the daughter is kept at home. She said many men don't want their wives to become MPs because they don't want to feel inferior to their wives...
Asked what she foresees for the future of her country, Ekwe said any progressive change in Cameroon will be brought about by young people who have been inspired by the role of young people in Tunisia and Egypt.
Breast ironing is the pounding and massaging of a pubescent girl's breasts using heated objects in an attempt to make them stop developing or disappear. It is typically carried out by the girl's mother in an attempt to protect the girl from sexual harassment and rape, to prevent early pregnancy that would tarnish the family name, or to allow the girl to pursue education rather than be forced into early marriage. It is mostly practiced in parts of Cameroon, where boys and men may think that girls whose breasts have begun to grow are ready for sex.
The U.S. State Department, in its 2010 human rights report on Cameroon, cited news reports and said breast ironing "victimized numerous girls in the country" and in some cases "resulted in burns, deformities, and psychological problems."
There are more than 200 ethnic groups in Cameroon with different norms and customs. Breast ironing is practiced by all of them.
Mothers who want their children to finish school before becoming parents have resorted to this drastic measure, and many see nothing wrong with it.
A survey by the German development agency GTZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit - German Agency for International Cooperation) from June, 2006, of more than 5,000 Cameroonian girls and women between the ages of 10 and 82, estimated that nearly one in four had undergone breast ironing, corresponding to four million girls. Incidence is as high as 53 percent in the Cameroon's southeastern region of Littoral. Compared with Cameroon's Christian and animist south, breast ironing is less common in the Muslim north, where only 10 percent of women are affected.
The 2009 Human Rights Report states that the Cameroonian law does not explicitly forbid discrimination based on race, language, or social status, but does prohibit discrimination based on gender and mandates that "everyone has equal rights and obligations." The government, however, did not enforce these provisions effectively. Violence and discrimination against women, trafficking in persons, and discrimination against ethnic minorities and homosexuals were problems.
It also states:
“The law allows a husband to oppose his wife's right to work in a separate profession if the protest is made in the interest of the household and the family; a husband may also end his wife's commercial activity by notifying the clerk of the commerce tribunal of his opposition based upon the family's interest. Customary law is far more discriminatory against women, since in many regions a woman traditionally was regarded as the property of her husband. Because of the importance attached to customs and traditions, civil laws protecting women often are not respected."
A 2010 report from the UN Human Rights Committee states:
“Notwithstanding the prohibition of discrimination enshrined in the Constitution of Cameroon, the Committee is concerned that women are discriminated against under articles 1421 and 1428 of the Civil Code concerning the right of spouses to administer communal property, article 229 of the Civil Code regulating divorce, and article 361 of the Penal Code that defines the crime of adultery in terms more favourable to men than women. The Committee also remains concerned that women are vulnerable to discrimination under customary law, even if customary law can in principle only be applied when compatible with statutory law. In general, the Committee is concerned about the prevalence of stereotypes and customs in Cameroon which are contrary to the principle of equality of rights between men and women and hinder the effective implementation of the Covenant.”
A 2009 report by the UN Human Rights Council states:
“On gender discrimination, the Minister noted that some traditions remain sources of discriminatory practices and violence against women. Also of note are the quasieconomic dependence of women in certain regions, the under-education of girls in certain parts of the country, and insufficient budget allocations for programmes and projects in this regard….”
The same report also notes:
“On eliminating practices concerning, inter alia, women and children, such as FGM (female genital mutilation), forced marriage and other forms of discrimination, the reform of the criminal code is underway, and In particular, the forthcoming adoption of the code of the family and of the child. These codes will make it possible to address these issues and bring legislation in line with international commitments.”
A report by Freedom House under the heading ‘Political Rights and Civil Liberties’ states:
“Many laws contain gender-biased provisions and penalties. There is widespread violence and discrimination against women, who often are denied inheritance and property rights. Female genital mutilation is practiced in the Southwest and Far North provinces, and homosexuality is illegal. Cameroon is a market for child labor and a transit center for child trafficking. Abortion is prohibited except in cases of rape or to preserve the life of the mother.”