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Introduction

Violence against women is a universal problem that continues to warrant much international, regional, and national attention. The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (also known as the Maputo Protocol) has been considered a ground-breaking instrument in terms of its recognition, protection, and promotion of African women’s rights in the areas of violence against women, governance, health, and reproductive rights. This protocol which was adopted in July 2003 and came into force in November 2005, signalled the commitment of the African Union and African states towards ensuring women’s rights and security. Cameroon shared in this commitment by signing and ratifying the Maputo Protocol in July 2006. Despite its commitment, rhetoric does not seem to match action and Cameroonian women’s rights have for the most part been neglected and de facto and de jure equality and security for women remain elusive.

Manifestations of Violence

Violence against women (VAW) is defined as any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. In the Cameroonian context, violence against women has been evident in wartime sexual violence, unfulfilled and unrealised sexual and reproductive rights, and high rates of intimate partner violence. These forms of violence against women are manifestations of historically unequal power relations between men and women which have roots in colonialism as well as patriarchy. Moreover, the growing trends of militarization and militarism as they pertain to the war on violent extremism in the North region and the Anglophone conflict continue to exacerbate the prevalence of VAW in Cameroon.

Unfulfilled and unrealised Sexual and Reproductive Rights

In no realm other than in the sexual and reproductive rights realm is one exposed to the deeply entrenched discriminatory values which impede women from exercising autonomy over their bodies and lives. Cameroon continues to struggle with sexual and reproductive health issues specifically maternal mortality and unsafe abortion. With regards to maternal mortality, Cameroon’s maternal mortality ratio stands at 529 deaths per 100000 live births and while there has been a decrease in this ratio over the course of the years.[1] This ratio is relatively high when compared to the recommended ratio of 70 deaths per 100000 live births needed to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals especially goal number 3 (good health and wellbeing).[2] The reality however remains that mortality linked to childbirth or pregnancy is avoidable, yet due to factors such as the low status of women and gender inequality, social determinants of health, the three-delays factors, early child marriages, and unsafe abortions, maternal mortality remains difficult to tackle.

Closely linked to maternal mortality is unsafe abortion and according to the World Health Organisation, countries in the Global South bear the burden of 97% of all unsafe abortions and have high maternal deaths which can be attributed to these.[3] Unsafe abortions continue to account for 25% of maternal deaths in Cameroon and it is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in Cameroon.[4] This trend is a consequence of the punitive and restrictive abortion law and inaccessible quality abortion care in the country. The law on abortion in Cameroon is restrictive in that abortion is allowed on strict grounds such as in the case of rape or if the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life.[5] These grounds however encompass so many medical and administrative hurdles and fail to consider women’s varied circumstances and inequalities.

The high levels of maternal mortality and the restrictive legal regime on abortion violate various fundamental rights such as the rights to non-discrimination, equality, inhumane and degrading treatment, right to life, right to privacy and family life, and right to health.

Intimate Partner Violence

Intimate partner violence (IPV) refers to behaviour by an intimate partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological devastation, including actions of physical violence, sexual intimidation, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviors. The Nkafu Policy Institute estimates that domestic violence affects 43.2% of women in union, emotional and sexual violence affects 39.8% and 14.5% of women, respectively, and that 20.1% of women nationwide reported being forced to have sex for the first time in their sexual relationships.[6] While recent data is wanting, this does not mean IPV has been tackled but rather points to the underreporting of the phenomenon which is a result of the culture of silence, impunity, and ‘endurance’. In May 2022, France24 reported that femicide was on the upswing in Cameroon, yet impunity and inadequate legal recourse make it hard to address this issue or for victims to get justice.[7] Cameroon Tribune further notes, IPV has become so engrained and become commonplace in the Cameroonian society despite the numerous victims it continues to claim.[8]

Despite the regional commitments to reduce violence against women, IPV remains an issue in Cameroon. IPV is of great concern, not just from an economic and health standpoint but also from a human rights perspective. The following rights are infringed in instances of IPV – the right to life, right to dignity, freedom from discrimination and inhumane and degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security of person.

War

Cameroon has been embroiled in a war on violent extremism against Boko Haram and in an Anglophone conflict. The situation of Cameroonian women affected by these conflicts continues to warrant attention and intervention. There have been reports of sexual violence[9] committed against women and women have been bearing the brunt of conflict. Within the humanitarian crisis which has ensued, women account for 51% of the internally displaced populace.[10] Internal displacement opens up the vulnerability and victimization of affected women to economic, physical and sexual violence. The ongoing conflicts and insecurity reveal the continuous manifestations of violence towards women, the violations of their rights and the failure on the part of the Cameroonian state to enforce these rights as enshrined in the Maputo Protocol. The violence and violations women in the conflict torn regions are subjected to obstruct their rights to dignity, to life, integrity and security of the person, right to participation in the political and decision-making process, right to peace, right to food security and protection in armed conflicts.

Cameroon’s State Obligations

The Maputo Protocol imposes general obligations on State parties, and these entail the obligations to protect, to respect, to fulfil and to promote. Cameroon as a state party (has signed and ratified) to the Maputo Protocol is therefore compelled to respect and protect the rights of all Cameroonian women. The obligation to protect requires Cameroon to exercise vital actions to prevent third parties especially non-state actors from hindering the enjoyment of women’s rights. The obligation to promote compels Cameroon to establish conducive socio-legal and economic environments and conditions that enable women to exercise their rights. The obligation to respect stipulates that Cameroon as a state should abstain from directly or indirectly obstructing women’s rights. In addition to the above obligations and considering its obligations when it pertains to violence against women, the state of Cameroon must respect and enforce the due diligence standard. This standard requires Cameroon as a state to carry out due diligence by preventing and aligning its domestic laws to punish all acts of violence against women.

In light of its human rights obligations under the Maputo Protocol, it is imperative for Cameroon to restore peace within the conflict-ridden areas of the North, NorthWest and SouthWest regions. War continues to have negative consequences on Cameroonian women and the women in the war-torn regions are in dire need of protection. Unfulfilled and unrealized sexual and reproductive rights continue to harm Cameroonian women and Cameroon’s reservation to article 14 of the Maputo Protocol as it relates to abortion continues to threaten the overall goal, intent and benefits of the Maputo Protocol which are to promote and protect women’s health and reproductive rights. It is important for Cameroon to liberalise abortion so as to remove barriers that make it difficult for women to access safe abortion. Liberalising abortion will go a long way towards tackling maternal mortality. Conclusively, reducing maternal mortality is a critical goal for improving the health and well-being of women and families in Cameroon. Cameroon as a state party to the Maputo Protocol should recommit to the goals of protecting, respecting, and promoting the rights of Cameroonian women by curbing violence against women.

Written by Dr Corinne Aurelie Moussi


[1] World Bank ‘Maternal Mortality Ratio’ https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SH.STA.MMRT

[4] MC Bongfen E Abanem ‘Abortion practices among women in Buea: a socio-legal investigation’ (2019) Pan African Medical Journal 32

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