21 June 2000

Women's Anti-Discrimination Committee
Takes Up Cameroon's Initial Report

NEW YORK, 20 June (UN Headquarters) -- A review of Cameroon’s legislation had revealed that most laws were not discriminatory in nature; discrimination was more de facto than legal, the representative of Cameroon told experts this morning during the introduction of its initial periodic report on compliance with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women.

Speaking to the Convention’s monitoring body –- the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women -– Julienne Ngo Som, Cameroon's Minister of Women’s Affairs, said that the ambiguous and incomplete nature of certain provisions of Cameroon’s legislation sometimes unfairly penalized women. For example, labour laws curtailed women’s rights by granting husbands the power to oppose their commercial activity. Property laws allowed men the freedom to sell or mortgage property without the approval of their wives. As for the criminal code, the definition of adultery made it difficult to prove the act when carried out by a man, whereas a woman was more easily sanctioned.

However, there was reason to hope that actions under way would eventually improve and enhance the provisions that would discourage discrimination against women. She said that certain measures had been taken since the ratification of the Convention in 1994 to improve the status of women, including lifting the requirement that a husband authorize his wife to travel abroad. A bill on violence against women was also being drafted based on in-depth studies. In 1997, the Ministry of Women's Affairs was established as the main governmental mechanism to implement and promote the Convention.

She said that the obstacles that had hindered the implementation of Convention included: the coexistence of written laws with customary traditions that did not always favour the promotion of women’s rights; limited awareness of the Convention; and a lack of resources allocated to the mechanisms to promote women’s rights. Structural adjustment programmes, the economic crisis and the trend of globalization had also led to greater inequality between men and women.

The Committee will meet again at 3 p.m. today to hear further comments and questions by experts.

Committee Work Programme

The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met this morning to begin consideration of the initial report of Cameroon (document CEDAW/C/CMR/1), submitted under article 18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. That article provides for States parties to submit reports on legislative, judicial, administrative and other measures adopted to give effect to the provisions of the Convention. Cameroon ratified the Convention in August 1994.

The report says that the question of the advancement of the women of Cameroon is not the responsibility of the Government, but also of numerous private organizations established as a result of the liberalization of political, cultural and economic life. Among the national machinery for the advancement of women is the Ministry of Women’s Affairs which was established in 1984. An economic crisis in Cameroon, which became increasingly serious after 1987, called for a cutback in public expenditure and the restructuring of the Government. As a result of the economic crisis, in 1988 the Ministry of Women's Affairs and the Ministry of Social Affairs were merged into one ministry, called the Ministry of Social and Women's Affairs. However, in 1997 the Ministry of Women's Affairs was re-established and the new Ministry was given intervention power, a general secretariat, an inspection mechanism, specialized technical directorates and local departments in various provinces of the country.

The report says that the Ministry of Women’s Affairs is responsible for drafting and implementing measures on the social observance of the rights of women, the elimination of discrimination against women and the strengthening of equality in the political, economic, social and cultural spheres of Cameroon society. Another example of national machinery for the advancement of women is the Consultative Committee for the Advancement of Women, which reports to the Ministry and, among other things, proposes actions and programmes to ensure the optimum participation of women in development efforts. Also working with the Ministry are some 150 national associations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).

On the first three articles of the Convention, which deal with constitutional and legislative embodiment of the principle of equality between men and women, the report says that Cameroon's Constitution, criminal and labour codes, and electoral laws provide for the principle of gender equality. While the country has adopted the principles set out in international conventions relating to human rights and non-discrimination of women, none of those codes or laws provide a definition of discrimination as outlined in the Convention. The embodiment of the principle of equality is not, in itself, sufficient to change behaviour and deeply entrenched attitudes, particularly when allowance is made for the coexistence of written and customary law within the Cameroonian legal system.

The report goes on to say that certain written laws incorporate discriminatory practices, including in the woman's right to work. The husband has the power to object to his wife's pursuit of a separate trade or profession and to end his wife's economic activity simply by notifying his objection to a commercial court. The right to choose where to live also belongs exclusively to the husband, as well as the right to sell, transfer or mortgage property without the consent of his wife.

The definition and punishment of the offence of adultery is another area of discrimination, the report explains. A wife's adultery is punishable as soon as it is found that she has had sexual relations with a man other than her husband, no matter how frequently and no matter where. The husband, on the other hand, is liable to be punished only if he has had sexual relations with women other than his wife or wives in the matrimonial home or if he has habitually had such relations outside the matrimonial home.

The report also says that many customary practices have negative consequences for women, including early and forced marriage, female genital mutilation, the subjection of women in matters of reproductive health, physical violence and mental cruelty. De facto discrimination includes difficulties in obtaining access to credit, the reluctance of some employers to recruit women because of maternity questions and the precedence given to male children in the field of education. In the light of these laws and traditions, Cameroonian authorities, supported by various NGOs are calling upon social partners to change their attitude and have taken a series of measures to ensure that women can realize their full potential.

The report says that, among the measures taken by the Government to end discriminatory practices, the Ministry of Women's Affairs plays a watchdog role. The Ministry has institutionalized "International Women's Day" which fosters discussion of practices and customs that discriminate against women. The Ministry also informs women of their rights by way of brochures, focal points on women’s issues, guidance and training programmes, projects in the area of health and financial support. A committee of women ministers and parliamentarians was also established. Moreover, a revitalization of the Consultative Committee for the Advancement of Women is currently being undertaken.

The report goes on to say that, although there are legal remedies for discrimination, the lack of a legal definition of discrimination and its too general characterization in the Criminal Code means that acts of discrimination cannot always be identified. Furthermore, implementation of the Convention is hindered by the fact that there is no specific national agency or ombudsmen responsible for ensuring compliance with the provisions of the Convention.

The report goes on to say that, even though discrimination is not precisely defined, Cameroon has taken a number of specific measures to accelerate equality between men and women, especially in the area of education, health and employment. On article 4, special measures to accelerate equality between men and women, the right of access to education applies equally to boys and girls. However, the proportion of girls among the children attending school is low. The enrolment rate, in general, is declining from 78 per cent in 1984 to 61 per cent in 1995. At the primary education level, girls account for less than half the total, or some 46 per cent. At the secondary level girls comprise less than 42 per cent of the total.

The report explains that to encourage the education of girls and women no longer of the required age for first enrolment in any formal system, the Government has provided alternative schemes run by several different ministries. The national action plan for children has set certain goals to be met by 2000, including improved access to basic education for all and priority to be given to enrolling girls and keeping them in school.

On the issue of health care, the report says that in the absence of special measures the degree of development cannot be properly assessed. In most cases, women do not have easy access to health care. Despite efforts to promote the health of women, they often experience difficulty in accessing health-care facilities. Nevertheless, an article of the labour code grants every woman 14 weeks of maternity leave beginning four weeks before the birth of her child. That leave may be extended because of difficult delivery or illness. Moreover, at no time during the leave period can the employer terminate the employment contract of the women. As a matter of practice, however, some employers refuse to recruit women for certain jobs because of maternity issues.

Concerning article 5 of the Convention (stereotypes), the report says that women continue to be subjected to numerous forms of discrimination in the political, economic, legal, social and cultural fields. Practices and customs that discriminate against women include limited freedom of expression, restricted roles in the community, inferior status relative to men and exclusion from certain high offices of State. Strategies to change stereotypes include improving women's awareness of family planning and popularizing education in responsible parenthood, promoting direct intervention on behalf of women victims of violence and adopting measures to encourage the integration of poor and marginalized women into the economically active population.

On article 6 of the Convention (prostitution), the report says that prostitution is a social scourge which is rife in both urban and rural areas, being practised by both men and women. This scourge is now so widespread that it has become difficult to identify and count the prostitutes. The Government has taken some preventive measures such as rehabilitation programmes, awareness campaigns, information and education campaigns. Cameroon's criminal code identifies prostitution, procuring and the corruption of minors as punishable offences.

The report also says that while there are no laws that discriminate against women in political life (article 7), women continue to be under-represented in decision-making circles. There are two houses of parliament: the National Assembly and the Senate. The Senate, which was created in the 1996 Constitution, has yet to be installed. Since 1992, the percentage of women in the multi-party Assembly has fallen sharply from 26 (14.5 per cent) to 10 (5.5 per cent). The decline in female representation is due to both small numbers of women being nominated and the failure of some political parties to put women at the head of their lists.

The report goes on to say that in 1997, for the first time, women occupied two posts in the office of the National Assembly, one post of committee chairman and one post of vice-chairman of a parliamentary group. Despite the political will to guarantee equal opportunity of access to elective and administrative posts, there is still discrimination against women even in the political parties, where they mainly serve as grass-roots activists.

On article 10 of the Convention (education), the report says that the proportion of girls falls progressively as the level of education rises, particularly in the sciences. The enrolment rate of girls and boys, in general, is falling. In 1993, students started dropping out of school as a result of the economic crisis. The number of girls obtaining access to secondary education is also low. Secondary education is more heavily concentrated in urban areas. The Government is making efforts to set up colleges in some large villages. The problem of under-representation of girls in the sciences first

arises in the second grade of the French-speaking education system and the fourth grade of the English-speaking education system.

The report also states that sending girls to school has long been perceived as an unprofitable investment, especially in the Islamic region where sending girls to school is regarded as undermining traditional and moral values. Moreover, with a fall in household purchasing power, the education of children has increasingly come to be seen as an investment on which to capitalize. Boys appear to be a better risk than girls, who are generally expected to leave home to become part of another family.

On article 11 of the Convention (employment), the report says that one in five households are headed by a woman. Most Cameroonian households are classified below the poverty threshold. Women, who make up 51.9 per cent of those living in those households, are the ones who suffer the most hardship. In 1970, Cameroon ratified the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention on equality of remuneration. The right to social security is provided for dependent workers only. Regardless of gender, unemployment benefits are not available.

The report says that, while there is a full range of measures to protect women employees, it is difficult to discern whether or not they are being applied. The hiring practices of some employers infringe upon a woman's freedom to marry, since she is often required to provide a certificate showing that she is not married.

On article 12 of the Convention (health care), the report says that the Ministry of Health has laid down the basic principles of health-care provision for mothers and children in a document which specifies 12 aspects to its health policy. Among those aspects are: controlling endemic diseases and epidemics; primary health care; health care for women; children; youth and family planning; mental health; drugs; and pharmaceutical policy. This policy is being implemented through programmes, including the National Family Health Programme, which incorporates a dozen priority subprogrammes for mothers and children. As far as the staffing of the health service, women are adequately represented with 21.38 per cent of doctors, 46.15 per cent of pharmacists and 31.64 per cent of dental surgeons.

On the economic and social rights of women (article 13 of the Convention), the report says that women are not yet participating sufficiently in industrial, commercial, formal and craft activities. They are concentrated in the food, textile and clothing branches and excel in food production. Women account for 81 per cent of the retail food sellers and 9 per cent of wholesalers. Regarding the right to bank loans and other forms of credit, legislative provisions restrict women’s legal capacity to obtain a bank loan. Another obstacle is that the husband can stop the commercial activity of his wife simply by notifying his objection to the Registrar of the Commercial Court.

The report also explains that the terms and conditions set by banks cannot easily be met by women farmers and traders because of their lack of basic training in management and bookkeeping, their poor understanding of the notion or a return on a loan, their ignorance of banking and tax procedures and their lack of collateral and security. The Government has taken several measures to overcome such difficulties faced by women, including strengthening their ability to create and manage enterprises and eliminate discrimination.

On article 14 of the Convention, the report goes on to say that rural women play a crucial role in ensuring food security in Cameroon. They account for 52 per cent of the rural population and produce about 90 per cent of the food. During peak periods, rural women do eight to 12 hours of agricultural work a day and spend almost as much time on household work. That is one and a half to three times more work than men, who only take care of the export corps.

The report also contains information on article 8 (women and international participation), article 9 (nationality), article 15 (equality of men and women before the law), and article 16 (women in relation to family law).

Introduction of Report

JULIENNE NGO SOM, Minister of Women’s Affairs of Cameroon, introduced the initial report of Cameroon, saying Cameroon ratified the Convention in August 1994, unconditionally joining the international instrument to confirm women’s rights. In accordance with article 18 of the Convention, in 1998 the Government submitted its initial report to the United Nations. She would discuss Cameroon’s approach to follow up on Convention provisions, obstacles that had hindered the implementation of the Convention, how the situation in Cameroon had developed since the submission of the report, and Cameroon’s future prospects.

From the outset, discrimination was more de facto than legal, she said. A review of legislation had revealed that most laws were not discriminatory in nature. Such legislation included Cameroon’s labour laws, criminal code, election laws and the general status of public service. For example, the choice of husband’s name was more a question of practice. It was an option for a woman to decide which name she would use. The nationality code also did not discriminate when it came to granting or maintaining Cameroonian nationality.

Nevertheless, certain legal provisions penalized women through their ambiguous or incomplete nature, she said. The labour law curtailed the freedom of a woman by granting the husband the power to oppose commercial activity on the part of his wife. According to property law, married women did not have the complete right to use property. Property could be sold or mortgaged without the approval of the wife. With respect to the right of private abode, only the husband could determine the family domicile. The definition and control of adultery, also found in the criminal code, made it difficult to prove the act when carried out by a man, whereas a woman was more easily sanctioned.

She said that certain measures had been taken since the ratification of the Convention to improve the status of women, including the lifting of the requirement that a husband authorize his wife to travel abroad and the readmission of a student who was suspended following a pregnancy. Moreover, some legal decisions had been rendered in favour of eliminating discrimination against women. That was the case of the Supreme Court decree of 1993, which recognized that a woman had the right to an inheritance, despite sociological obstacles.

On measures adopted since the entry into force of the Convention, she said that since 1994 the legal framework had not evolved to the extent desired. However, there was reason to hope that actions under way would eventually make it possible to improve and enhance the provisions that would discourage discrimination against women. The establishment of commissions within the Ministry of Justice was a step forward. For example, a civil legislation reform commission was currently working on drafting the family code. Also, a bill on violence against women was being drawn up and it was based on in-depth studies. From an institutional point of view, structures to promote the advancement of women were in place at the community level. There were also technical training structures for women at the cultural and technical levels. Organizational networks, civil society associations and NGOs also worked to promote women’s rights and combat violence.

Another measures since the time of ratification was the establishment in 1997 of the Ministry of Women's Affairs, she explained. The Ministry dealt with the organization of the Government for the implementation of the Convention, and it was the main governmental provision to promote women’s rights in Cameroon.

She said that among the obstacles that could hinder the implementation of Convention provisions was the multi-ethnic nature of Cameroon. Her country had more than 200 ethnic groups, which sometimes led to differing views on women. Social and cultural obstacles included the coexistence of written law and local customs that did not always favour the promotion of women’s rights. Another obstacle was the legal duality that Cameroon had inherited and the coexistence of the Anglo-Saxon and French systems. Limited awareness of the Convention affected its implementation. A lack of resources allocated to the mechanisms to promote women’s rights also represented an obstacle. Structural adjustment programmes, the economic crisis and globalization had led to greater inequality between men and women.

She said that the adoption of a national plan of action on genital mutilation sought to improve the health and living conditions of women and to put an end to that practice. An in-depth study of that phenomenon was under way, which would shape the other strategies envisioned by the Government.

The reports that Cameroon would submit to the Committee in the future would undoubtedly demonstrate its commitment to promote and protect the rights of women, she said. Future actions for the promotion of women included: setting up a monitoring mechanism for the implementation of the Convention; the establishment of databases, including statistics on violence against women; and information, education and communication programmes to give wider publicity to the Convention. Other future actions included the continuing reform of legislation and statutes and the strengthening the role of NGOs in their work to promote the advancement of women.

Comments and Questions by Experts

As the Committee began consideration of Cameroon’s periodic report, several experts gave their general observations. They congratulated Cameroon on the extensive work that had gone into the presentation. They particularly applauded the statistical detail of the report, saying it was most impressive for an initial reporting period and would be very important in aiding the Committee in its work. One expert, however, warned Cameroon's delegation to beware of the "sociological dead weight", or negative traditional cultural practices that could render null and void all the country’s good work in the area of promoting women’s equality. Cameroon was on the right path, she said, and it was most important not to lose that momentum.

Another expert noted that the decentralized nature of the Government could pose problems in establishing or initiating policies that would affect the broadest number of women in Cameroon. It would be important, therefore, to create a nationwide strategy, or perhaps even use the basic tenets of the Convention to bring the many women in the country together under an umbrella of equality. The ethnic diversity of Cameroon could also be used as a unifying force for all women.

Turning to article 2, an expert noted that the country’s legal policy seemed to lack a clear description of discrimination against women. When carrying out its legal reform, it would be important for Cameroon to incorporate the Convention’s definition of discrimination in all its policies, another expert said. Reading from the provisions of article 2, another expert reminded Cameroon that under the Convention, steps of legal reform should be taken "without delay". She urged the representatives to consider that and hoped the delegation would have positive advances to report at its next presentation.

The concept of colonial legal processes, which often reinforced the burden of negative cultural practices, was also a concern. It was true that Cameroon had many discriminatory laws on the books, but some policies that had been introduced over the last few years -– in the areas of education and labour, for instance –- were very enlightened. How was it that some of the newer laws seemed very proactive in the area of gender equality, but there appeared to be a reluctance to do away with some of the older, male-husband-oriented policies?

Taking up Cameroon’s progress under article 3, general concern was expressed about budget allocation for strategies to improve gender development. Budgetary resources should be considered very important, she said, particularly in the area of establishing training programmes and ensuring proper follow-up measures to other types of programmes that were already in place.

Several experts congratulated Cameroon on the frankness with which the report dealt with many of the Committee's concerns about violence and stereotypical attitudes in that country, such as polygamy and genital mutilation (article 5). One expert said, however, that the report did not speak a great deal about family violence. As she was from an African country, she said that she understood silence on the issue. It appeared that they were uncomfortable with family violence, but it must be acknowledged. It was most important to give women the courage to denounce violence, as well as discrimination.

It was true that stereotypes were difficult to overcome, another expert said. They were rooted in customs, culture and even working practices. In that regard, perhaps Cameroon should take a human rights approach to the issue, namely, identifying the persistence of sexual stereotypes as a human rights violation against women. It was well documented that if such stereotypes were allowed to spread, they could affect women’s rights at other levels. It was also suggested that it might be helpful to use the tenets of the Convention as a teaching device to spread information on stereotypical attitudes.

Cameroon’s population policy was also a concern, as it appeared that a high fertility rate was encouraged. Was that really the case? Were there reproductive health programmes in place? Regardless of the apparent encouragement of a high fertility rate, was the Government providing adequate information on contraception?

Another expert said that in many countries the Convention was less well known than the Beijing Platform for Action. While that was, to some degree, sad, it also provided countries with the unique opportunity to enforce the tenets of the more familiar Platform by using the Convention as the legal instrument. Many of the Platform’s issues were covered under the various provisions of the Convention. Therefore, Cameroon, which had ratified the Convention, was in a very good position to use it as a tool to enforce policies

On article 6 of the Convention (prostitution), an expert said that the report described prostitution as a widespread "social scourge" that affected old and young women alike. What approach did the Ministry take in tackling the problem? Were awareness campaigns, which according to the report were organized "from time to time", sufficient? Did sex education exist in schools? As for punitive measures, the criminal code identified procuring of minors as a punishable offence. Did the Minister think that the measures in the criminal code were sufficient to deal with prostitution, or must it be modified? Did she envisage changes? Who was punishable -- women only or the clients? The examples of other countries should be studied to show how that phenomenon had been tackled.

Another expert asked, in reference to article 7 (women in political and public life), what Cameroon intended to do with discriminatory practices, such as the right of the husband to end his wife’s business. What percentage of women participated in elections? Were there any support systems to ensure that women participated in the political life of the country? Was there any debate on introducing an electoral system that would be friendly to women? How active were women’s organizations in promoting women in decision-making?

Another expert said that women’s participation in Parliament peaked in 1992, and dropped abruptly thereafter. However, the participation in the municipal sector had increased. Were there legislative initiative to incorporate a quota percentage? Had the Minister thought about a campaign for training female candidates, so that they could feel more secure and have stronger political voice?

On article 10 of the Convention (education), another expert asked if there was any sign of improvement in the enrolment of girls in school courses. Had the programmes of the Government had an impact on education? Was there any improvement in the custom that afforded boys greater opportunity for education? Had there been any impact in Islamic regions, where girls married young and preference was given to boys?

On article 11, the right to work, an expert asked if the women who headed households also held jobs. Were they given opportunities to work? Without education, there would be no opportunity to obtain employment. Most women were in the informal sector when they worked outside of the home. A woman’s choice of occupation was restricted. People in the informal sector did not have access to social security of any kind and suffered many levels of disadvantage. She proposed that girls receive basic education and that every effort be made to reduce the dropout rate. She also proposed that girls receive technical and vocational education not only in traditional jobs, but also non- traditional training in science, management, media, and technology.

Another expert asked if, within the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, there was a way to eliminate the unmarried status that employers asked for, so that women did not encounter that cruel form of discrimination.

On article 12 (health), an expert said that the report identified a series of practices that were precarious for the health of women. Fortunately, the problems had already been identified. She realized that financial resources were scarce. The health of women, however, could not wait. Special progammes must be put in place to educate the population. The high fertility rate was not only hazardous to the health of the women, but to the entire society. It was important to put intensive programmes in place to change the perception of high fertility rates. The fact was that in sub-Saharan Africa the achievements made were being eroded by HIV/AIDS. Unfortunately, the report did not contain information on HIV/AIDS in Cameroon.

* * * * *