Thousands March in Cameroon to Press for Women’s Rights

YAOUNDE, CAMEROON — Thousands of Cameroonian women were out on the streets Friday — International Women’s Day — to press for more access to education and economic opportunity, as well as an end to harmful prejudices and practices.

The Central African nation’s Ministry of Women’s Empowerment said about 30,000 women came out to mark this year’s International Women’s Day, many wearing special green and yellow gowns bearing the slogan “Invest in Women, Accelerate Progress.”

The women sang about longing to be free and achieving true equality with men.

Rights activist Muma Bih Yvonne said women want to end the perception that they should be limited to child rearing, domestic chores and farm work.

“Women just want a level playing ground,” she said. “Women want equal opportunities; women want that the gender gap that has been delaying for so long should be bridged. If you have a female and a male child, give them the same responsibilities, level the playing ground.”

Muma said illiteracy among women remains high because many families still prefer to send only boys to school. Protesters said the practice blocks women from positions in public offices in which literacy is a requirement.

They also criticize that men own more than 85% of land in Cameroon and will sell it only to other men or hand it over only to their sons.

In hopes of changing long-established practices, organizers of Friday’s rally invited several hundred men, including traditional rulers who impose what the women describe as inhumane treatment on widows. Some of the practices include forcing women to sleep with the corpses of their late husbands and drink water used in bathing the bodies as a sign they did not kill their spouse.

Ernest Akuofou, an adviser to the traditional rulers of Ndop in Cameroon’s North-West region, said after listening to the demonstrators that he is convinced women should be given the same opportunities as men.

“In my village community it is just recently that women have been admitted to the level of notability. Why is it only now? Even as they are admitted at that level, the treatment given to them is not commensurate,” Akuofou said.

“That is why men are using the stereotypes on them: ‘Why do you go to talk politics [when] you are supposed to be in my kitchen?’” he said. “Those are the stereotypes; those are the things which push women to the background.”

Marie-Therese Abena Ondoa, Cameroonian minister of Women’s Empowerment and Family, said President Paul Biya is committed to improving the conditions of women.

She said the appointment of more women as managers of state corporations and directors of administrative offices shows there is a political will to end prejudices and involve women in decision making.

“Many of them [women] do not know their rights,” Ondoa said. “If they want to progress, they must have the will, and I think the government is doing a lot to allow women to really emerge. Women have proven that they can be in all domains, but we still need to do more to see that all those who enter primary education are not dropped out.”

Ondoa noted that Cameroon currently has over 60 women in the country’s 180-member National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, and about 50 women who are mayors of towns and cities.

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