Giving women land, giving them a future
Customary laws and practices that discriminate against women's land rights have taken a heavy toll on the well-being of Cameroonian women. Although the president of this West Central African state has endorsed a call by civil society groups for reform, it will be some time before change finally comes.
Ngala Killian Chimtom
Clarisse Kimbi barely ekes out a living from a tiny parcel of land in Kom village in the North-West Region of Cameroon. Today, the mother of six finds it hard to put food on the table for herself and her children. But five years ago she, her husband and children were considered well-off.
In 2007, farming on five hectares of land, Kimbi could comfortably feed her family, and still have enough surplus food to sell. In a country where 40% of the population live below the poverty line, her family was counted among the wealthy.
But things changed when her husband died five years ago. Almost everything was taken away from her and her children.
'Just one day after my husband was buried, my in-laws confiscated the five hectares of land my husband and I had farmed for 27 years,' she told Inter Press Service (IPS). Traditional practices in the area give the right to inherit land exclusively to men.
'Things have become so difficult that I have had to take some of my kids out of school,' she said.
Two of her children are no longer attending secondary school, and three others are struggling through primary school. President Paul Biya decreed free primary education in Cameroon in 2004, but parents are still required to pay fees to help poorly-equipped schools function.
Kimbi's problem is not an isolated one. Figures from the National Institute of Statistics for 2010 indicate that women constitute 52% of Cameroon's 20 million people.
And although women produce 80% of Cameroon's food needs, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, they own just 2% of the land, according to 2011 statistics from the Cameroon Gender Equality Network.
'If we are talking about a just and equitable society, then women should be able to control at least 35% of the land,' Judith Awondo, the coordinator of the network, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that works for women's empowerment, told IPS.
Although the 1974 Land Tenure Ordinance in Cameroon guarantees equal access to land for all citizens, customary laws and practices that discriminate against women's land rights prevail over statutory laws. This has taken its toll on the economic well-being of women.
'The inability of women to freely access and control productive resources places them in a weaker position in terms of agricultural productivity and economic growth, food security, family income and equal participation in governance,' Fon Nsoh, coordinator of the Cameroon Movement for the Right to Food, a local NGO, told IPS.
According to the 2007 household survey, 52% of people living in Cameroon's poor households are women.
The problems of access to land for women and communities have been worsened by the land grab perpetrated by multinationals and society's wealthy, according to Nsoh. He particularly cited the case of Herakles Farms in Cameroon's South-West Region as the 'hottest and the most contested'.
On 7 November 2011, the High Court of Kupe-Muanenguba Judicial Division in the South-West Region ordered that the project be halted. But Nsoh expressed concern that the company was going ahead with the creation of a 73,000-hectare oil palm plantation with a 99-year lease based on 'scandalously negotiated conditions'.
The US-based Oakland Institute and Greenpeace, the international environmental watchdog, released a report suggesting that the project, situated in what is described as a biodiversity hotspot between four major conservation zones, could negatively impact up to 45,000 people.
Environmental groups are accusing the New York-based agricultural company Herakles Farms of going forward with plans despite two court injunctions and a lack of government authorisation, and in the face of significant community opposition.
'There are thousands of people there who might lose their farmlands, particularly women who were not part of the negotiations,' Nsoh told IPS.
He is now working together with other NGOs and civil society organisations to effect reforms on the 1974 Land Tenure Ordinance that regulates land issues in Cameroon.
'The 1974 Land Tenure Ordinance is obsolete. It was enacted about 38 years ago and no longer corresponds to modern-day reality,' Nsoh said.
Article 1:2 of the Ordinance says 'the state shall be the guardian of all lands. It may in this capacity intervene to ensure rational use of the land or in the imperative interest, defence or the economic policies of the nation.'
Nsoh contends that such a clause excludes communities from land negotiations, citing several cases where the state has expropriated land for purposes of investment, without consulting with the communities that lived on the land.
Along with other NGOs and civil society organisations, Nsoh's movement is pushing for more inclusive legislation, advocating that the law should specify not only that communities be involved in land negotiations, but that a very high premium should also be placed on women and vulnerable groups when it comes to negotiations on land issues, so that they can at least 'have access and control'.
Since last year, these groups have been working on a draft land rights bill that should help break the barriers to women's access to land. The proposed legislation seeks to ensure that the law prevails over the discriminatory traditional practices that constrain women's access.
'Land certificates for matrimonial property should be instituted in the joint names of the husband and wife so as to do away with the patriarchal system of inheritance practised in most of Cameroon,' Nsoh said. He added that such a requirement would make it difficult for women like Kimbi to be deprived of their land by other family members if a spouse dies.
Besides the call on women to be included in all committees that deal with land issues, civil society organisations in this West Central African nation are also pushing for a simplification of the rather long and cumbersome procedures for acquiring land certificates, and for the cost of acquiring such land titles to be brought down to levels attainable by women, typically impoverished over time by existing policies.
'We need to revise this law and give it a gender twist,' Nsoh said.
He said that although the government has not yet reacted to the demands of civil society, he is hopeful that this will be done eventually. During the 2011 Agro-Pastoral show organised in Ebolowa in Cameroon's Southern Region, President Biya underscored the need for a revision of the law.
'It may take a long time, but coming from the country's highest political authority, there is no doubt that it will be done,' Nsoh said. However, he is still frustrated at the slow pace at which events are unfolding, because this means more years of suffering and deprivation for Cameroonian women. - IPS
*Third World Resurgence No. 264/265, August/September 2012, pp 58-59