Let’s Speak Out! Against Trafficking and Modern-Day Slavery of Women and Children in Cameroon

According to a report published by the US Department of State in June 2018, Cameroon is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children subjected to forced labour, trafficking, and modern-day slavery. Victims are often lured by the promise of education, job prospect, or a better and glorious life in the big city or abroad. Marginalized and displaced women, as well as homeless children and orphans are especially vulnerable to trafficking.

An international organization reported Cameroon currently has over 665,000 “individuals of concern” as of February 2018 – including refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) – who are vulnerable to trafficking due to their economic instability, lack of access to formal justice, limited education, and unemployment, just to name a few. Cameroonians from disadvantaged communities, in particular from rural areas, are exploited in forced labor and trafficking in the Middle East, Europe, USA, as well as African countries. Most victims of trafficking and modern-day slavery from Cameroon are women between the ages of 20 and 38, many of whom come from the Northwest and Southwest regions. More often than not, the intermediaries to trafficking are local community members, including religious leaders, former victims-turned-perpetrators, even close family members. These traffic networks advertise jobs and education opportunities through the internet and other media, or directly to disenfranchised families.

As a non-government organization, CAEPA Cameroon continues to be an advocate for detection, prevention, and mitigation of trafficking and modern-day slavery, by providing a safe haven for women and children, offering educational and vocational training, and empowering the victims with tools and skills needed for successful reintegration into their communities.

Please tune in to Christian Broadcast Service (CBS) Bamenda 101.0FM on Saturday, December 15th 2018, between 5:30pm and 6:00pm with our host Kelly Vera-Molo, as we discuss the issues surrounding the trafficking of women and ways in which we can help. Survivors of modern-day slavery must be treated with dignity and respect, without prejudice or judgement. Often the victims are afraid to speak up or seek help for fear of retaliation by their perpetrator. Shame and feelings of worthlessness and failure also play a role in the silencing of the victims.

CAEPA Widow – survey 

At the end of December 2018, CAEPA conducted a survey of 190 widows and 10 traditional council members in the Bali Chamba villages of Cameroon’s north-west region. The widow survey participants came from the following villages: Baligansin (30), Baligashu (40), Balikumbat (80), and Balighasu (40). CAEPA administered a questionnaire which asked for participants’ age, number of children, participation in widowhood rites, duration of ritual (for both females and males), widow and property inheritance, as well as what their thoughts were on the abolition of such practices. Out of 190 widows surveyed, all 100% stated they had undergone widowhood rituals. The ages of the participants ranged from 22 to 88, depending on the village. While it was observed that widowhood practices followed similar rituals across the villages surveyed, there were significant variations in the duration and widow inheritance In the village of Baligansin, for instance, 30 widows had a total of 188 children. Duration of widowhood rites was about 2 months on average. One-third (10 out of 30) of the widows had been inherited – married to a deceased husband’s relation. When asked about ritual abolition, only 7 out of 30 (23%) stated they would support it. No widow from this village inherited property. In contrast, the village of Baligashu had 40 widow participants, also with 188 children in total. While the ritual duration varied from 3 days to 3 months, this village saw zero widow inheritance, had 100% support (40 out of 40 participants) for complete ritual abolition, and half (20 out of 20 participants) inherited the deceased husband’s property. The village of Balikumbat had the largest participant size of 80 widows, with 389 children in total. The average ritual duration was 3 days to 1 week – a statistic that can be attributed to the fact that Blikumbat is a warring community and men could be asked to join a fight at any time. Much like the widows from the village of Baligashu, more than half (56%) of the Balikumbat widows survey stated they inherited the deceased husband’s property, but only 26% (21 out of 80) were supportive of complete ritual abolition. It is important to note that the widowhood institution is a well organised and established aspect of the community, which has survived cultural extinction, despite its repugnant and degrading nature. Lastly, the village of Balighasu had the shortest average ritual duration of only 3 days, had 14 of 40 (35%) widows inherited by the deceased husband’s relation, saw 7 out of 40 (18%) widows be in support of complete ritual abolition, and had 4 out of 40 (10%) widows with inherited property. Out of 10 traditional council members surveyed, only 3 were in support of complete ritual abolition. They all shared the same views on how widowhood rites should be executed (see below). All 10 participants, however, agreed that certain changes in effort to shorten the ritual duration should be made. Lastly, it was observed that in all Bali Chamba villages surveyed, widowed men only spent 1 days undergoing widowhood rituals.

What does a widowhood ritual in the Bali Chamba villages entail? Across the communities surveyed by CAEPA, it was observed that widowhood practices followed similar rituals. Deeply rooted in ancient tradition, this meant for widows to be stripped off their clothes, bodily hair removed (typically by means of shaving), sleeping on plantain leaves or on a bed made of bamboo, and being allowed to bathe in a stream once a week, until the cleansing ritual has been completed. Some communities allowed widows to cover their exposed private parts with a white loincloth. Other may allow for a thin white garment to be worn. All hair is removed from the widow’s body, including the hair on her head, eyebrows, arms, legs, and the pubic area. The widow has to sits with legs stretched out and her hands stretched open on her legs. She eats from a calabash and drinks from another calabash which is washed once a week. She eats without washing of hands, as basic hygiene is neglected.

Solution: Women and widows in particular should attend adult literacy classes, seminars, and training programmes offered to them by the state, religious bodies, and nongovernmental organizations such as CAEPA Cameroon. In addition to education and vocational training, women must be aware on their basic human rights (women’s rights) and to educate themselves on where to go for help.This can be done through the establishment of victim telephone hotlines, community support groups, community workshops, mentoring, peer-to-peer tutoring, and more. This would enable the widows with a safe and judgement-free environment in which to share experiences, seek support, offer advice, acquire new skills and ideas. It would provide them with a path to community reintegration, independence, and self-sustainment. Receiving education will also provide access to better-paid jobs and financial security.

CAEPA Survey – Violence Against Women (VaW)

Recently, CAEPA Cameroon, and NGO based in Bamenda, Cameroon’s northwest, has conducted a voluntary, non-compensated survey of 320 women. The purpose of the survey was to assess how much awareness exists toward VaW, whether women know their rights when it comes to reporting incidents, as well as what the general consensus is toward VaW in the region. The questionnaire consisted of thirty-three (33) questions, most of which were in Yes/No/n/a format, though some questions required a short answer.

Findings:

Out of 320 women surveyed, about 88% (281) have heard of violence against women, and 55% of all women surveyed (176) have been a victim of such assault. Furthermore, about 86% of the women surveyed believed that sexual intercourse without consent is considered a violation on their womanhood. It is interesting to note that out of 14% of women who did not agree that lack of consent was a violation to their womanhood, only 6% believed consent was not at all needed, while 8% of the respondents did not have an opinion.

Out of 320 women surveyed, 100% answered Yes to being a victim of violence. About 40% (128) reported being assaulted between the ages of 1-15, 29% between the ages of 16-25, 24% between the ages of 26-45, and 6% age 46 and above. Many women surveyed reported have been a victim of or a witness to numerous types of assault, including general assault (beating), coercion, early and forced marriage, being forced into harmful practices, public shaming and humiliation, intimate partner violence, murder, prostitution, rape, social isolation, severe verbal abuse, sexual harassment, spousal abuse, and trafficking.

When asked about the perpetrators, 62% (199) of the women survey reported being abused by their husbands, while 28% (89) reported being abused by their boyfriends. One in four women also reported being abused by one or both parents, and one in three married women have been abused by their in-laws. All 320 women reported being abused not only by close family and other relatives, but also by law enforcement officers, bosses, as well as hooligans.

While most abuse victims reported the incidents to a friend (35%) or a relative (42%), others confided in social workers, husbands, pastors, social workers, and police. It is interesting to note that out of 320 women surveyed, only 2.5% (8) reported to police officers. This alone is indicative of the patriarchal roots on which regional traditions and customs are based upon. Traditions in which men hold more power than women. Traditions in which women are scared to report abuse out of fear for being marginalised and publicly humiliated.

From the survey, it is also evident that women are abused from early childhood, throughout their adult life, and even in their senior years. The abusers are people who, under normal circumstances, would protect and shelter them – their husbands, boyfriends, parents, and in-laws. Instead, women in Cameroon’s Northwest communities live in a constant state of fear. Article 18 of the Cameroonian Constitution states that “The State shall ensure the elimination of every discrimination against women and also ensure the protection of the right of the women and the child as stipulated in international declaration and conventions.” Everyday verbal and physical abuse, sexual exploitation, public shaming and isolation, and other forms of discrimination against women in Cameroon’s Northwest region clearly demonstrate that traditions rooted in misogyny take precedent over the book of law.

Non-government organisations (NGOs) such as CAEPA Cameroon continue to fight for women’s right and to educate women on how to become independent and self-reliant. This is done through vocational training (agriculture, farming, environment protection), education (use of technology, accounting, entrepreneurship classes), healthcare (voluntary HIV/AIDS screening and education about safe sex practices), counselling, and community outreach programs.

Violence against women is a serious and growing problem in Cameroon’s Northwest region. In addition to gender stereotyping rooted deeply in tradition and folklore, the situation has been exacerbated by the influx of internally displaced people (IDPs), poverty, unemployment, disease, and other factors brought about by the in-fighting and corruption. We must protect women and children by providing early intervention, ease of reporting, access to counselling and healthcare, but also by educating the perpetrators and would-be perpetrators on equality and women’s rights. It is an uphill battle, but one that can be overcome with time if enough resources are put into place.

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