Ireneaus Chia Chongwain
Domestic violence may neither be strictly gender nor age sensitive, but increasingly the practice is taking its toll from the rank and file of women and children, and understandably so because of their vulnerability.
Although national legislation in Cameroon with regards to the protection of women from violence remains weak, commendable ground has been covered at the international front.
The UN Convention on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines violence against women as "any act of gender- based violence that results in, or that is likely to result in, physical, sexual or the psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life."
At the family level the convention identifies instances which constitute violence against women such as battering, sexual abuse of female children within the household, dowry -related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices that are harmful to women.
At the community level these acts are sexual harassment and intimidation at work, in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women and forced prostitution, while at the state level such instances occur when the state machinery perpetrates or condones the above-mentioned practices.
The same convention calls on national governments to develop penal, civil and administrative sanctions to punish or redress the wrongs caused to women who have been subjected to violence. In Cameroon and since December 8, 2004, the Government has manifested a heightened interest in female affairs through the creation of the Ministry of Female Empowerment and the Family to oversee the general welfare of the womenfolk.
While this initiative has been applauded by many women, a lot still remains to be done in Cameroon in the area of the protection of women from domestic violence and organised crime. According to a report presented during the Paschal Week in Yaounde by Amely-James Koh Bela, Secretary General of an NGO, Africa Prostitution, which handles issues related to the defence of the rights of women, Cameroon has the highest number of prostitutes in Europe.
While thousands of girls and women have willingly gone into it, hundreds left the country under the misleading notion that they were joining their husbands in these European countries, a bulk of the contacts having been made via the internet. Despite the magnitude of the problem and the seriousness of the allegation, there has been no official reaction from the Cameroon Government.
As a member of the United Nations, Cameroon is bound under International Law to condemn violence against women in all its forms. Violence against women in Cameroon cuts across income lines, class and culture. The most vulnerable come from minority groups. They are also refugee and migrant women, those living in remote and rural communities, elderly and indigenous women and those in situations of armed conflict, especially during inter-tribal wars in some regions in Cameroon.
Despite the fact that thousands of women are subjected to violence on a daily basis, Cameroon's Penal Code does not make any special provision for the protection of these women. Women are only covered by the general law on assault, issues which are raised from section 275 to 281 of the penal code. The code does not make any distinction between men and women.
Women's movements are playing an important role in drawing attention to the nature, severity and magnitude of violence against women. According to Magistrate Betty Luma, President of the International Federation of Female Lawyers in Cameroon (FIDA), "women who drag their husbands to court are usually advised to go back and solve the problem at home with their husbands. At home they continue being battered and they have nowhere else to turn to."
Magistrate Luma states that these are setbacks in Cameroon's legal system that the family code which is being elaborated must address. While Cameroon continues to lag behind in matters of the protection of women against violence, much ground has been covered at the international front.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Convention against Torture, and other cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, are all international conventions that protect women from violence.
They fall in line with the basic philosophy expounded in the Nairobi Forward Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women which considers violence against women as an obstacle to the achievement of equality, development and peace.