The first two weeks of my internship revolved around preparing a proposal for UN Women and working along with the CONGEH team for the organisation of an advocacy workshop aimed at raising awareness amidst institutional actors. CONGEH is a conglomerate of smaller NGOs that work under the platform of gender – habitat – HIV/AIDS. Its specific goals makes CONGEH not only a network of NGOs with an interesting view but also endows it with the daunting, yet successfully accomplished task of answering all the questions with a high degree of hands-on knowledge, specificity and accuracy.
The workshop was focused not only on raising awareness, but also on obtaining a clear set of answers, recommendations and solutions with regards to the stigmatisation of women and the violation of their rights. Undoubtedly, the presence of representatives of different ministries was more than a prerequisite, while the presence of members of CONGEH and other NGOs was the trigger.
Regardless of the research I conducted and the statistics that I familiarized myself with during the preparation period, it was during the workshop where I quietly, mindfully and critically learned more than simple numbers or a list of well-known causes. The clash of customary and state law seems to favour the traditional views and practices of the Cameroonian communities. Chiefs of different under-developed areas of Yaoundé presented the reality of these customs: women are discriminated, widows can be accused of their husbands’ death and words such as property and succession are rarely, or almost never, associated with women. Yet, the favouring does not necessarily spur out of a preference for customary law. It is the lack of knowledge of their rights and, thus, their non-claiming that put women in such a precarious situation.
Now, of course, the conversation also took the direction of religion, as Cameroon is a country with a fear of God, regardless whether the God is catholic, orthodox, Muslim, etc. English and French are the official languages for the purpose of standardizing, but there are other 250 languages spoken in Cameroon. Cameroon is called Africa in Miniature not only for its landscape but also for its mix of cultures. We usually say there are as many opinions as there are men. This is true.
The law is meant to help bring about these changes in a uniform, healthy and non-violent way. The government is expected to successfully develop tools in order to encourage these changes. Everybody agreed that the law has been drafted in such a way as to encourage the promotion of equal rights of men and women. Yet, the participants strongly disagreed on what the government through its ministries and projects has done up until now and what tools they offer for these women. Lack of knowledge is prevalent in Cameroon. While I have not had the chance of leaving the heart of Yaoundé, members of other NGOs insisted on the lack of resources offered to these women. Women suffering of HIV/AIDS do not acknowledge and have no means of reaching the places where the government put in place special areas to help. Nonetheless, while these tools are thoughtful and meant to only do well, their application in real life situations has not been done effectively. Their translation into practice causes most of the problems and the dissatisfaction of the people is immense.
CONGEH has conducted its own study on 2000 women suffering of HIV/AIDS in the communities of Yaoundé and has observed that stigmatisation, lack of knowledge of their rights, violation of their rights to property, succession and housing, all lead to unsanitary life conditions as these women are abandoned, kicked out of their homes or left in unimaginable living conditions that do nothing but worsen their already weak situation. While infected men choose to abandon their homes, women are removed from the households and find themselves homeless or turn into squatters. Living a normal life while suffering of HIV/AIDS is no longer a dream, but it demands access to treatment, clean water and decent living conditions: the lack thereof leading to a fast deterioration of both their physical and mental health. The stigmatisation of those suffering of HIV/AIDS knows no gender discrimination, but the acute predisposition of women to being discriminated with regards to their rights to ownership leads to a casting aside with repercussions unbeknownst to our imagination.
Education of the society, modernisation and dismissal of the discriminating practices were in the minds and on the lips every workshop participant. If modernisation is the goal, and the removal of discriminating practices is the beginning, how will that work? What does modernisation actually entail? What effect will it have on all the Cameroonian customs? As newer generations are born changes are brought. Yet, each community wants to maintain its culture, while some even refuse compromises. Of course, the removal of discriminating practices is ideal and it is suggested, but how fast will it be done? And, do fast solutions necessarily mean realistic measures?
As I am typing this blog entry at my desk, I realize it takes more than a workshop and an exchange of words to draw the real picture. These are numbers, opinions and well-known causes that have yet to been efficiently tackled. Modernisation is thrown around as a word that fills no gap, heals no wound and carries no weight. I look forward to the days where I will sit around the table facing the women we have been talking about. Their stories, their sorrows, their concerns will teach me even more than the intense debate did. And, hopefully, with time, madness or death will no longer exist as options.