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L’autre 50%

Suzanne Zaccour

Lorsque j’ai décidé d’appliquer pour un stage à la CONGEH (Cameroun), plusieurs facteurs sont entrés en ligne de compte. Certains n’étaient que de simples préférences, mais une chose était certaine : je voulais travailler pour promouvoir les droits des femmes. Heureusement pour moi, le stage qui était à la fois le plus accessible, le seul en français et situé dans un pays où ma famille a déjà vécu concernait également les droits des femmes. Plus spécifiquement, les droits fonciers et successoraux des femmes, en particulier celles infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida. Après presque deux mois de stage, j’en suis venue à la conclusion que ma volonté de travailler pour les femmes n’était pas qu’une simple question de préférences. En réalité, tenir compte du genre dans le contexte du développement est tout simplement incontournable. Comme je le disais hier à un collègue à la recherche de financement, les bailleurs de fonds sont nombreux à exiger que les projets ciblent les femmes. L’industrie du développement a, semblerait-il, enfin découvert cet autre 50% de la population mise de côté depuis… toujours? Quoiqu’il en soit, deux anecdotes vécues cette semaine dans le cadre de mon stage m’ont confirmé l’importance des questions de genre même dans les domaines les plus apparemment « neutres ».

Je suis en train de compléter une (imposante) demande de financement pour un organisme qui appuie des projets visant l’autonomisation économique des femmes et la promotion de leurs droits. La CONGEH (Coalition des ONG et OCB du Cameroun œuvrant dans le domaine des Établissements Humains) conduit justement depuis plusieurs années le projet de Cliniques de Consultation Foncière (CCF) pour la réduction des inégalités envers les femmes infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida. Ces cliniques offrent des services gratuits d’information, de consultation et d’accompagnement pour les femmes victimes de violations de leurs droits fonciers ou successoraux ou désireuses de mieux les protéger. Dans les communautés où elles sont implantées, les CCF permettent donc aux femmes de connaitre et de faire reconnaître leurs droits, en particulier dans un contexte de VIH/sida. Elles organisent également différentes activités de sensibilisation communautaire et de plaidoyer auprès des autorités locales et traditionnelles.

La CONGEH étant un réseau d’organisations, de nombreux projets sont élaborés par ses membres avec plus ou moins de centralisation. L’un de ces projets « périphériques » consiste en l’assainissement et l’installation de latrines dans une communauté, l’objectif étant de favoriser une meilleure hygiène et notamment de limiter les maladies opportunistes au VIH/sida. Préoccupée par mon application, je constate qu’il ne cible pas spécifiquement les femmes. Mon superviseur me détrompe : ce sont les femmes qui portent le fardeau des soins aux enfants et aux malades. Ce sont elles également qui entretiennent le foyer familial. Ainsi, tout changement dans la sphère dite privée les affecte directement. Une hygiène décente améliore grandement leur qualité de vie, tandis que des enfants ou un mari malade représente un défi supplémentaire à relever dans leur quotidien déjà surchargé. Si elles sont commerçantes ou agricultrices, leurs revenus fluctuent selon l’état de santé de leur famille.

Pour moi qui ai cette préoccupation à cœur, c’est un plaisir de constater que la situation des femmes est prise en compte dans la planification des activités de la CONGEH. Négliger les questions de genre peut faire d’une bonne idée un échec. Cela m’amène à ma deuxième anecdote.

S’immerger dans un pays en voie de développement permet de constater de nombreux problèmes qu’on n’a jamais vécus. D’un autre côté, les pays dits développés ont beaucoup à gagner en prenant pour exemple leurs voisins du Sud relativement à certains enjeux. Les préoccupations environnementales, notamment, semblent intégrées dans le quotidien des Camerounais-e-s. Cela n’est guère surprenant quand on sait que le gaspillage des ressources renvoie à des pertes financières et que les pays du Sud souffrent davantage de l’impact des changements climatiques. Ainsi, l’élimination des emballages en plastique s’est récemment ajoutée à des pratiques respectueuses de l’environnement telles l’alimentation sans gaspillage et la réutilisation des contenants en verre. Plus précisément, « la fabrication, l’importation et la commercialisation des emballages non biodégradables (plastiques) sont interdites sur l’ensemble du territoire camerounais » depuis le 1er avril – mais certain-e-s ne l’ont pas trouvée drôle. L’interdiction s’accompagne de systèmes de surveillance et de sanctions; ainsi, même si les sacs de plastique sont encore parfois utilisés « en dessous de la table », la plupart des commerçant-e-s ont usé d’inventivité pour trouver des moyens alternatifs d’emballer leur marchandise. Les résultats sont parfois assez surprenants. Par exemple, on a empaqueté mon marché dans des boîtes – on aurait dit que je déménageais. Le vendeur que je visite tous les matins « emballe » mon pain dans une feuille manifestement arrachée d’un cahier de rédaction. Il est également populaire d’enrouler d’une bande de papier les tablettes de chocolat : sans attaches, c’est à mon humble avis totalement inutile, mais les vieilles habitudes sont résilientes.

Un pays qui bannit totalement les emballages en plastique, quand on sait le désastre qu’ils représentent pour l’environnement, ça ne peut résonner que comme une bonne nouvelle. Or, il y a bien un hic. C’est la responsable d’une des organisations membres de la CONGEH qui me l’a fait découvrir. Son organisme vise le renforcement des capacités économiques des femmes, dont des veuves et des femmes atteintes du VIH/sida (des personnes vulnérables, donc), par la production et la vente de chips de plantains. Vous savez, celles qui se vendent dans de petits paquets transparents… en plastique? Cette activité, dont dépendaient de nombreuses femmes démunies, a donc dû être interrompue. En raison de la crainte de visites d’inspecteurs environnementaux, les magasins ont interrompu les commandes. Le plus choquant, c’est qu’il n’existe aucune production d’emballages conformes (biodégradables) au Cameroun. Les femmes qui bénéficient des actions de cette ONG sont réellement prises au piège, et elles ne sont pas les seules. Ce sont les femmes qui préparent et vendent la plupart des aliments, et la santé de leurs enfants dépend de leurs revenus. Il semblerait que le gouvernement camerounais ait négligé de tenir compte des femmes dans son plan à la rescousse de l’environnement.

Les gouvernements du monde résistent à l’ADS (Analyse Différenciée selon les sexes), « un processus d’analyse favorisant l’atteinte de l’égalité [en discernant] de façon préventive les effets distincts sur les femmes et les hommes que pourra avoir l’adoption d’un projet ». De leur côté, les mouvements sociaux (socialiste, nationaliste, environnementaliste…) ont tous un jour où l’autre laissé tomber les femmes. On ne peut pas sacrifier les femmes au développement; le développement doit être réalisé par et pour les femmes. « L’avenir de l’homme est la femme » disait Aragon. Je n’ai aucun mal à le croire, quand je vois ces commerçantes déterminées saisir l’ambassade des États-Unis en vue d’organiser l’importation d’emballages biodégradables. Je n’ai aucun mal à le croire quand j’entends parler des initiatives que les femmes prennent au sein des communautés et des sommets qu’elles peuvent atteindre, à condition qu’on croit et qu’on investisse en elles.

Aider les femmes à réaliser leur potentiel n’est définitivement pas une préférence. C’est une obligation.

Réflexions sur l’intersectionnalité

 Suzanne Zaccour

Intersectionnalité. Un mot à la mode.

Selon ma grande amie Wikipedia : « L’intersectionnalité […]désigne la situation de personnes subissant simultanément plusieurs formes de domination ou de discrimination dans une société. […] L’intersectionnalité étudie les formes de domination et de discrimination non pas séparément, mais dans les liens qui se nouent entre elles, en partant du principe que le racisme, le sexisme, l’homophobie ou encore les rapports de domination entre catégories sociales ne peuvent pas être entièrement expliqués s’ils sont étudiés séparément les uns des autres. L’intersectionnalité entreprend donc d’étudier les intersections entre ces différents phénomènes. » [http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intersectionnalit%C3%A9]

L’intersectionnalité est un concept très en vogue dans les mouvements féministes et chez les activistes de façon générale. J’ai entendu ce mot pour la première fois en août 2013. Autant dire tout de suite que je ne suis pas une experte. Par ailleurs, en tant que blanche hétérosexuelle valide cisgenre [insérez ici tout autre privilège qui vous vient en tête], je n’aurais jamais cru rédiger un article sur le sujet.

Or, il se trouve que je vis bel et bien une situation apparentée à une double discrimination.

La rue appartient aux Camerounais-es. Le trafic est dense sur les grandes artères (selon les standards locaux), les chauffeurs de taxi déplacent des hommes et des femmes pressé-e-s d’arriver à destination pour la modique somme de 40 sous, des femmes tiennent des petits kiosques sur le bord de la route où elles vendent des mangues, ou des balais, ou des crédits pour le téléphone. Les enfants jouent au ballon devant la maison, le soir. À toute heure, les écoliers-ères promènent leurs uniformes.

Bref, Yaoundé est une ville bien animée.

Et pourtant, je suis le plus souvent cloîtrée chez moi. Je dois toujours être accompagnée, même pour aller à la boulangerie au coin de la rue. Tous les matins, mon chauffeur me prend devant la porte de mon appartement; tous les soirs, il m’y ramène. Il est imprudent de se balader seul-e. En tout cas, dans ma situation. Mais quelle situation au juste?

Ce n’est pas parce que je suis blanche que je ne peux pas sortir. Un ancien stagiaire tout aussi étranger et pâle que moi m’a effectivement décrit ses fréquentes sorties. Ce n’est pas non plus parce que je suis femme, puisque j’en croise tous les jours. C’est la combinaison de ces deux identités qui me fait perdre toute autonomie. Leur intersection.

C’est cela, l’intersectionnalité.

J’hésite à effacer ces mots d’un ctrl+z bien appuyé. Puis-je vraiment parler d’oppressions multiples, quand le fait de ne pas être en sécurité est compensé par mes moyens d’engager un chauffeur privé, au décuple du prix des taxis collectifs? Puis-je parler d’oppression quand mon incapacité à m’acheter un dîner à cent mètres du travail signifie qu’un collègue me dépose un repas chaud sur mon bureau tous les midis? Puis-je utiliser ce mot, alors que j’écris ce billet dans le cadre d’un stage non-rémunéré?

Bien sûr que non. Ce que je vis n’est qu’une parenthèse, puisque dans une dizaine de semaines, je regagnerai le privilège de ma couleur de peau. Mon « oppression » en tant que blanche, est à la fois artificielle et superficielle, puisque le racisme inversé n’existe pas.

Ainsi, je laisse de côté ma situation pour vous parler d’une intersection où les accidents sont mortels. Une intersection entre deux drames. Celle qui nourrit mon travail ici.

Quand j’ai appris que je travaillerais sur le droit foncier et l’accès à la terre pour les femmes infectées ou affectées par le VIH/sida, je n’ai pas immédiatement saisi l’intersection entre le genre féminin et le VIH/sida. Ma première pensée a été : « ça, c’est ce que j’appelle ne pas avoir de chances dans la vie ». En découvrant un peu l’organisation pour laquelle je travaille, la CONGEH, j’ai appris que l’indépendance économique et la propriété d’un logement étaient cruciales pour les femmes atteintes du VIH, en raison des coûts accrus en soins de santé qu’elles doivent assumer. Comment se soigner quand on n’a même pas de logement? Je soupçonnais pourtant qu’il n’était pas seulement question de pauvreté. La problématique sur laquelle je travaille est spécifiquement « genre-VIH-habitat », et non « genre-pauvreté-habitat ».

C’est donc en commençant tranquillement mon travail que j’ai trouvé l’explication. Qui n’est pas du tout jolie.

C’est bien connu, le VIH est transmissible sexuellement. Or, les femmes qui n’ont aucune sécurité foncière, qui sont totalement dépendantes de leur mari économiquement et pour ce qui est de leur logement, ne peuvent pas « négocier leur sexualité » (tel que formulé sur le site web de la CONGEH). En termes plus clairs (ou plus sombres), elles sont [plus] vulnérables [encore] au viol conjugal. Dans un contexte où il est extrêmement difficile pour une femme de posséder sa maison, celle qui ne veut pas se retrouver à la rue devra céder aux rapports sexuels exigés par son mari infecté. Ce n’est pas que son « non » n’est pas respecté. C’est qu’elle n’a pas la possibilité de dire « non ». Ainsi, les femmes sans propriété foncière sont plus à risque de contracter le VIH.

L’intersection se traverse aussi dans le sens contraire. Une femme affectée par le sida ne pourra vraisemblablement pas travailler aux champs, entretenir le foyer, ou exercer quelque activité que ce soit choisie par son mari. Cela suffira peut-être à ce qu’il la mette à la porte. Conséquemment, les femmes affectées par le sida sont, de leur côté, plus à risque de se retrouver en situation de précarité de logement.

Voilà donc mes réflexions du moment sur l’intersectionnalité. D’un côté, l’épée en mousse. De l’autre, le double tranchant.

Yaoundé

Alexandra Bornac By Alexandra Bornac

Yaoundé is a beautiful city built around seven hills (namely why I call it the Rome of Africa). From any point of the city you can spot the peak of every hill: a green paradise. The problems lie at the base of this paradise. As the research I conduct here is targeted around HIV/AIDS, gender inequality, land and inheritance rights, I could not resist the urge of observing the living conditions and urban structure in Yaoundé.

It is understood that a clean house and a roof is necessary to safeguard one’s health and it is important in the moments of convalescence. It is not the case here where houses either have no roofs and the windows consist of a stack of old t-shirts stuffed in rectangle holes. Bastos, one of the richest neighbourhoods of Yaoundé, is filled with expensive houses and embassies surrounded by well-kept gardens. In between these imposing and well-built buildings, you find the native population who sold their lands to buy food. Yet, they kept small parcels where they built houses out of dirt which bent towards the ground at the slightest wind blow. They are not painted, nor do they have floors: they are built directly on the ground. The roofs are different pieces of metal put together simply to protect from the rain but there is never a guarantee that it will work.

The other consistent problem is the abundance of garbage lying on the streets or thrown in the rivers. Canals are built between the main roads and the pavement to divert the rain water, but instead they turned into intense smelling garbage disposals. I pass to work a complex of apartment buildings where the smells are impossible to handle for more than ten seconds and the mountains of garbage seem to have grown higher since I got here.

The rich build houses as wide as their parcel of land and as high as to cast a thick shadow on the small houses that the poor barely try to keep standing. The discrepancy is astonishing and the images are worth a thousand words. It reflects the true structure of the society: you are either very rich or very poor. The middle class is non-existent and the poor constitute the majority of the population. Those that have the money prefer to fund soccer fields, churches or private universities. Some will sometimes even pay for street lights in their neighbourhoods but the majority of the Yaoundé areas remain unlit at 7 pm when the sun is gone. Populated areas get their lights from the little bars on the side of the road or the grill fire that the street food vendors use.

Yaoundé is also filled with half-built house: people will start big projects and will stop mid-through due to lack of money. This gives squatters the opportunity to settle in these construction sites. One 5 story building I pass on my way to work every day stands there half-finished and you cannot be oblivious to the sheets attached to the ceilings which play the role of walls.

The saddest image I encountered was when I was walking towards to the biggest park in Yaoundé situated downtown. On my way I could not stop looking at the garbage lying around in front of the prime minister’s office. I tried to look the other way and I only met the eyes of a woman who must have been around 60 years old sitting in the seat of an abandoned car. She was smiling, but her eyes were sad as she was rearranging the sheets so that the rain does not penetrate in what was definitely her home.

A couple of weeks ago, the garden of the house across the street caught on fire in the middle of the night. It was a sort of apartment building with a kitchen outside. While nobody was actually aware of the fire until it reached the height of the house, neighbours gathered as fast as they could to try to control the fire until the firefighters showed up. Yaoundé is the capital and, thus, the traffic is unbearable at almost any time of the day. However, in the middle of the night, any movement by car should take a maximum of 15 minutes. The firemen took 30 minutes to reach the neighbourhood and, luckily, they arrived somehow in time (regardless of the fact that the neighbours had to tear down the wooden fence of the house before it caught on fire).

I can only imagine how long it will take for an ambulance to reach a dying patient. It is not about promptness, it is about the streets that are slowly turning into red dirt. If it rains for more than a half an hour, the streets turn into fast-running rivers (in which I have fallen repeatedly). Two way streets turn into one way streets when all the cars and motorcycles drive only on the good side. The red dust fills the air abundantly every day as the car pass by hurriedly through the narrow and unpaved streets. Each time I am told: C’est la réalité de notre pauvreté.

Parks are rare to be found and those made by the government demand an entrance fee and are barely the size of the law faculty. There is no way to escape the city and its pollution, no way to escape the life and the worries. The paradise is only to be found on top of those hills where the air is still clean, the lands virgin and the quietness is only interrupted by the sound of birds singing the day away.

 

 

 

Soit la folie, soit la femme décède

Alexandra BornacBy Alexandra Bornac

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.

Property Stories

From Edward Bechard-Torres

We had arrived at Minkoaméyos, a small town straddling a main road just beyond the outskirts of Yaoundé, when a colleague of mine recited that worn fetish: “Work in the field is always more complicated: you learn how all those laws you’ve been reading about translate into practice”.

My colleagues were making rounds in the village to houses that had been designated by a UK-based NGO to be demolished and re-built according to a model designed to curb the incidence of malaria in children. I was to piggyback onto these visits to interview residents on the methods by which they came to access their plots of land.

There was always going to be more to property law than what was provided for in the medley of inherited laws and local ordinances. Our visit that day underscored the role property law may play in the construction of identities and of perceived communities.  More precisely, in Minkoaméyos, property rules almost certainly help cement perceived differences between the locals – les autochtones – and the non-locals – les allogènes. To explain, not every Cameroonian possesses a right to title any bit of land. The right to undergo the titling process on a specific plot of land flows from a certificate of traditional occupancy, a document that, in essence, certifies that one’s “ancestors” occupied a given plot of land. It is hard to imagine any world where one’s ancestors continually occupied a single plot of land, but that is the only story these certificates permit.

If a “foreigner” intends to acquire titled property, he would have to either purchase that certificate of occupancy and undertake the titling process himself, or he would otherwise have to wait for a “local” to title the plot and then purchase the titled land. In Cameroon’s urban centres, I have been told, most of the land occupied has been purchased, even if in an informal sense; few plots are still held by the original occupying family. The widespread absence of original occupants signals an aggregate shift of property holdings away from a less-efficient allocation, based on a families’ historic occupancy, to a more efficient one that privileges those who stand to benefit most from close proximity to urban markets.

In Yaoundé’s satellite villages, however, the property holders’ composition is mixed. In some villages, the difference between the autochtones and the allogènes is stark. In these places, the allogènes may be wealthier, mostly holding employment in Yaoundé, and take advantage of the relatively inexpensive cost of land to build gated dwarf mansions, which stand in stark contrast to the mud-based housing of the indigenous. In Minkoaméyos, the separation is invisible; the “foreigners” are residents drawn from the surrounding region who mostly hope to gain employment at the budding water treatment facility within the town’s limits. The “foreigners” do not appear to be any wealthier. They are culturally similar and occupy by and large similar houses to their “indigenous” neighbours.

And yet those differences, traceable to property law, may have generated a sense of group identity, with an accompanying sense of solidarity between imagined kin. The end of my day had me sitting under a large aluminium sheet that shelters a family’s supply of wood. The family’s eldest sister they are allogène – informed me that les indigènes often “sell” the same piece of land to multiple buyers. To avoid being defrauded, incoming families often have to signal to other prospective buyers that that portion of the property has been “purchased”. I have seen walls of houses, for instance, that have been inscribed with the forbidding “DO NOT BE MISTAKEN, THIS HOUSE AND LOT HAVE ALREADY BEEN SOLD”. Her family had bought a virgin plot, and to evidence their occupation they decided to immediately erect an improvised residence. That need to construct has imposed a double cost – the family lives in an unstable house that imperils the health of its residence, while its construction diverted needed savings away from the mother’s project to build a more durable, adequate familial home. The vendors have stumbled with handing over the certificate needed for her family to title the land – a “he has it, no she has it” kind of affair – and her working family is simply too busy to put the kind of pressure needed to get things moving. Throughout her story, the family are referred to merely as “les autochtones”. At the end, the eldest sister points to a small plot across the path, recently acquired by another family of allogènes. She tells me that she watches out for this family as well, to make sure that les autochtones do not try and pull a fast one on her apparent comrades.

The community could have been studied exclusively through its property norms. We repeatedly found wives busying themselves alone in their home, where they spend the lion share of their waking minutes. In spite of their reliance on their husband’s living quarters, they were ignorant on their property status. The most basic questions went notably unanswered. Nearby, a large family’s property is held communally in a collective title, kept at the home of the communal matriarch. This sub-community prefers to manage their property relations amongst themselves, perhaps according to custom, and eschew the application of State law. The entirety of the property is titled only so as to preclude forced eviction at the State’s hands.

Most importantly, the day underscored the how common property-related insecurities were. So few plots have been titled. Many occupants not only lack that basic legal protection, they also lack the tools and capacity to obtain it. One man tells us that he had purchased a future morsel from a man who had purchased the customary right to title the lot in its entirety. The vendor has since died, and this occupant is now clueless as to the location of the documents he would need to title his morsel.

Others have begun the titling process. The process, even after recent reforms, remains cumbersome and expensive. One resident, lured into hope by his neighbour’s success story, has taken the first steps and expects the process to take six months (as per the government’s half serious promise). Down the way, one family had invested its hopes in a sponsor, an individual who undergoes the titling process on behalf of another in exchange for a portion of the resulting securitized property. Three years have passed and no title has yet been received. The sponsor has been happy to live and farm his share of the land and to blame bureaucratic hurdles for his own lack of follow-through.

A kind of property anxiety is thus widespread – as it should be in a State where the threat of forced eviction looms large – and while it may encourage residents to undertake the titling marathon, it risks over-simplifying the life of property norms to the question of “is this property securitized, or not?” Although, it is interesting that, of all the criteria on which the UK-based NGO selects the recipients of its model houses, that is not one of them.

CONGEH’s Chairwoman Appointed to the Supreme Court

I hoped she would enjoy her gift, a traditional bowl of bowls made from local woods that I had picked out with the assistance of one of her close relatives. The occasion was significant and celebratory: Julienne Ayissi, the Court of Appeal justice who, on a parallel career track, acts as figurehead and chairperson of the CONGEH, was to be sworn in as a Councilor of the Supreme Court of Cameroon.

In broad strokes, the Supreme Court of Cameroon acts as the final appellate court in penal, administrative and civil matters. It also provides the final say for disputes governed by the state-recognized customary law.  The Supreme Court has also assumed jurisdiction over constitutional matters while President Biya and accomplices lag to establish the Constitutional Court envisioned in the Constitution.

Her house was hard to find. Towards the back end of a messy web of warped and deep-ridged mud roads – the kind that evidence the “informality” of the local housing – we would finally find a gated cement lot. Lawn chairs were being unloaded by the dozen, groups of women worked around mountains of fresh vegetables, while Mme Ayissi herself rushes to and fro, preparing herself for a meeting. “Everybody has taken this so seriously, I find it overwhelming,” she tells me, “It is not that big of a deal”. Her exasperation might have been expected. It is rumored that she has had to take out a loan to pay for all the gas consumed in traveling between preparatory meetings, where members of the judiciary, State officials, family members and even some village authorities have stressed the importance of her new position and of the values she should embody in her work at the country’s highest tribunal.

And, in spite of her humility, the appointment is significant. Ayissi is attentive to the needs and concerns of the landless and the vulnerable, particularly women infected or affected by HIV/AIDS. That kind of alignment is useful in a Court that has been known to have its way with the law, so to speak. In matters of family property and succession law, for instance, the Supreme Court has been known to ignore core, explicit Codal articles and to fabricate new rules or regimes un-tethered to either the Code’s provisions or to its evident philosophy. This assumed judicial liberty might well be rooted in a dissatisfaction with the Civil Code, which is, for most intents and purposes, the French Code Civile as it existed in 1960. It was originally adopted as a temporary, “gap filling” measure to hold the country over until the competent government bodies could enact a law proper to Cameroon. Some speculate that, in light of persistent legislative inaction, the Cameroonian judiciary has taken upon itself the task of adapting inherited foreign legal notions to local realities and philosophies. In any event, this assumed liberty makes the identity of the members of the Supreme Court all the more important.

After an official State ceremony oversaw the swearing in of all sitting magistrates, Ayissi was treated to two receptions, one for members of the legal community and another for family, neighbours and residents of Bana, her native community. Residents of Bana would impress upon her how she now represents Bana, and the Bamileke more generally, at the national stage. Her family would celebrate the success of one of their own, evidently satisfied with the kind of family status that will follow her appointment. Members of the CONGEH, also present, have reason to be excited as well. “She could one day become Minister of Justice!” says an elated colleague. For now, CONGEH stands to look more credible with a member of the Supreme Court at its helm, and can look to Ayissi’s appointment as a vindication of its philosophy and approach to development.

Her appointment does speak volumes of the relationship CONGEH has fostered with the Cameroonian government. Paul Biya would certainly not have seen a critic appointed to the country’s highest judicial body. But the CONGEH that I have been exposed to seeks more to assist the Government, and considers many elected representatives and government missives as partners. Colleagues of mine are proud that government officials have expressed a certain reliance on the contributions made by the CONGEH. Liaisons with government ministries in turn lend the organization some credibility. Moreover, having the attention of certain politically significant individuals allows the CONGEH to engage in more effective – and therefore more fund-worthy – advocacy work. No doubt, there are pervasive costs associated with aligning an NGO with a central African government. So it is a strange kind of accomplishment that, while some of the other human rights interns have served advocates that have been targeted by anxious governments, loathing dissent, CONGEH’s leading advocate was just promoted.

University Libraries as Fieldwork?

From Edward Béchard-Torres

It will take a long time to adapt to Cameroon. Everything is so different. I know that other interns have felt the same way, and often resort to metaphors to relay their experiences. Here’s another: it has been a bit like jumping into a very cold lake for the first time. At first there’s a sense of being totally overwhelmed. Reacting to that sense of boulversement, one may feel a strong urge to return to what is familiar – back into the canoe, in the case of the cold lake. But after one’s body begins to adapt, the world appears less intimidating. The different-ness ceases to be overpowering, and the sense of being overwhelmed is replaced by an appetite to explore a new and exciting environment.

Now at that last stage of the now familiar emotional arc, I find myself confronted by a problem other interns are surely facing as well. Cameroon is a very interesting place for someone interested in law, human rights and development. But attempts to probe deeper into issues that might intrigue a foreign law student are thwarted by a dearth of available and reliable information.

Yesterday, for instance, I was told that bar exams are held irregularly in Cameroon, such that a recent law graduate can wait up to five years or more before being given the opportunity to join the legal profession. “Is the bar trying to limit the supply of practicing lawyers – maybe to keep the costs of legal services artificially high?” No one had any idea. “The Ministry of Justice has a lot of influence with the Bar. There may be some political considerations that trickle down”, says one of the lawyers with us. She had no idea what those political considerations might be, though.

Many of the conversations I have had with local community activists, students, lawyers, professors and other local residents have only spawned questions. What do you mean a person found squatting on private property could be imprisoned for a three-year term? Is that what happens in practice? An illegally occupying family has to pay for the bulldozers that raze their settlement and evict them from occupied property? Where can I find that in writing? How is that enforced? These go unanswered.

I had to be at two local university libraries for other reasons, but part of me hoped that I could find troves of local Cameroonian publications that could distill, frame and explore the questions and issues that work “in the field” had left unanswered. The irony that I had come to Cameroon for “fieldwork” in a “grassroots” organization and yet was secretly thrilled at the prospect of spending the day reading in a library had not escaped me.

And the libraries did not disappoint. On the way there, while plundering down one of Yaoundé’s busy market streets – driving against the traffic to avoid the field of car-sized potholes – the taxi driver informed me that a walled community for the handicapped lay just down the road. Curious, I pressed him for more information, but, of course, he had little more to say about it.

Having arrived, I was greeted by a warm librarian at the “bourgeois” Université Catholique de l’Afrique Centrale, located on a campus dominated by a central cathedral and so meticulously groomed I could have forgotten I was still in the messy and spontaneously settled Yaoundé. He led me into the small private library, where fifteen students, spaced out across an open seating area, poured over political writings and legal treatises of European origin. It is packed, I am told; students will begin writing exams next week. He was grateful that I had come, and hurried to bring me to the materials that I needed. I will have to go back though; students are not allowed to leave with any items from the library, not even to use the photocopying machines across the path!

A Single Hair Above the Grass’ Roots – An Introduction to La CONGEH

by Edward Béchard-Torres

After a two-week introduction, I know enough about my host organization to draw a sketch. La CONGEH – whose acronym roughly translates to “the Coalition of Non-Governmental and Community-Based Organizations working in the domain of Human Establishments” – acts as general coordinator, network, research center and occasional spokesperson for its member organizations, rumoured to amount to some thirty in total.

The Coalition has as its lodestar the attainment of secure and adequate housing for all Cameroonian residents. Its approach is holistic, multi-disciplinary and multi-layered, and is particularly oriented towards the most vulnerable segments of the population. That said, much of its work consists in providing local residents with information – particularly legal information – and advocacy, directed towards both community members, traditional leaders, and political stakeholders.

The organization, in other guises, also conducts research on property and housing-related issues. The organization has examined, for instance, the channels by which low-income families come to possess land, the formal and customary law of succession and its impact on married women as well as a study on the quantification of the psychological, social and pecuniary loss suffered by families following a forced eviction.  Lastly, the organization works as broader spokesperson, both to potential sources of funding and to a larger development-oriented community.

Human Rights as an End, Not Necessarily as a Means

While some imagined human right to housing and property may act as an ultimate objective, a clarion call, and even a marketing pitch, there does not appear to be much workable or useful human rights law or mechanism for the Coalition to make use of. Secure property and adequate housing remain to be achieved by other means: influencing government policy, transforming community attitudes, providing health-related services or spreading commercially useful practices. Because poverty acts as one of the most important barriers to adequate housing, some of the Coalition’s member organizations devote themselves to simply raising household incomes.

Les Cases Sociales

At the center of la CONGEH’s operation sit seven Cases Sociales, a term which translates (poorly) to “Social Spaces”. We might know them as community centers. The notion of the Case Sociale, I have been told, is a modern iteration of the institution of the Baobab tree, a tree whose base and shadow served as a center of debate, dispute resolution and community gathering in traditional villages. In its modern iteration, they are small offices rooted in different neighbourhoods in Yaoundé and in the surrounding rural area.

The offices serve as the principal distributors of la CONGEH’s informational services and advocacy. I have had the chance to visit only one – la Organisation Nationale des Promoteurs du Progrès (“ONPP”). The office is holed at the backend of a dirt road in Messa Carrière, a dense neighbourhood of mostly informal settlements, bordered by a communally-managed cornfield that grows from the remains of an evicted neighbourhood. That day, the ONPP had organized an HIV screening campaign – children line up to be tested while the event organizers try to rope in passers-by. Next week the ONPP will host a session on micro-credit; the week after it will host a session on dying and sowing material for sale; the week after that it will hold a session on interior decorating.

Human Rights Advocacy as Missionary’s Work

 The Coalition does offer some traditional legal services, most notably legal information related to property and housing rights. It has accompanied community members to Court and does, on occasion, offer references to lawyers better positioned to handle litigious matters. But much of the Coalition’s focus remains centered around reformulating attitudes around land and housing, and around HIV/AIDS and women’s welfare in particular.

This campaign hopes to bring a human rights worldview to bear on actions of community leaders and community members. And the human rights discourse is not the only source of arguments tapped. A small stack of unfolded pamphlets lined up against a wall had been intended for distribution in low-income communities. The pamphlets are intended to inform community members of the discrimination and housing-related vulnerability faced by women in Cameroon.

On the pamphlets, one slide sketches a local community leader informing women – both married and un-married – that they will possess no rights to their own houses until their name is entered on the formal title to property. Another features a husband ejecting his wife from their shared home – she is HIV-positive, the slide informs, and her new homelessness will be a burden, added to her need to find work, food, control her illness and take care of her children. One last slide features a woman arguing with her partner, who similarly intends to eject her from their home. Surely, the wife argues, the effort and affection with which she cared for the home, making it a livable space, should give her some right to it. Much of the Coalition’s work is of this nature: modern, human welfare and human rights-oriented proselytizing.

These have been some of my first – and perhaps mistaken – impressions, and these will be the spaces that I will continue to watch.

About the pangs of development.

ludoLudovic Langlois-Therien

Après m’être relu, je ne peux que constater la maladresse, voire l’inexactitude des propos que je m’apprête à tenir. Néanmoins, il s’agit d’une réaction “à chaud”, écrite d’un seul jet, et j’ai tenu à la préserver ainsi.

In one of her posts, Kelly mentioned the frustration she felt about the very limited impact of community oriented NGOs, that it had been one of the reasons for her to pursue legal studies, to gain a more effective tool to help the people. Being currently an intern in the same NGO where Kelly once worked, I understand her frustration.

Since I have been here, I have not only witnessed the limited impact of community NGOs, but also of the general framework of human rights when applied to people that are so poor that they have trouble affording their bare necessities.

One aspect of my work consists of educating people in the slums about their tenure rights, about what they can do to be “in the law” and how they can have local recourses against the authorities that want to evict them. Walking in the slums and interviewing potential victims of forced evictions, I have come to realize that often, these people are fully conscious of their rights, of how they are currently trespassing the law; but also, how they did not give a damn about it because they had more urgent preoccupations, like finding food for their children. Before coming here, I knew the situation was not going to be all black or all white, but I would not have suspected to be in the position of sympathizing with the authorities, at least not in a strictly legal point of view.

It is true that the local law concerning tenure rights is not the most sensitive one (especially when you compare it to Quebec law…), but it is still far from what the “kafka-ian” nightmare that I had come to expect. For instance, people receive a “notice of eviction” one entire year before they are actually evicted. Given that they are occupying lands that aren’t theirs and the city need to urbanize new spaces for a growing population, one year seems a fair delay. In other words, I could not see the problem as a proper legal one.

When local law is deficient in terms of human rights, international law of human rights can be a useful joker, most notably for advocacy. But at its current stage in Africa, and when it is a question of social rights in a place as deprived as Cameroon, international law of human rights itself is a very limited tool. While social rights are not a “luxury” per se, they remain somewhat “utopist” when considered in a society that is struggling with corruption and tons of other pressing issues. In fact, most people here have no expectations from neither their government nor from the international order, they just do their best to live and improve their situation. “L’Afrique, c’est d’abord la débrouille”, as I have heard many say.

In this situation, I think that the main problem is not the law, nor its application, but the fact that slum dwellers first need a decent job. We are not talking big amounts of money, just enough resources to satisfy bare necessities. If that would happen, people would be able to cope more easily with their situation, like finding a new home in less than one year. In a place where institutions are so flawed, where the government is so corrupted, I have come to believe that social-economic self-determination is often the most efficient way to protect oneself.

In a bit less than two months of work, I have interacted with many NGOs and local UN departments. I have encountered so many gender/international development/social sciences students from all over the world (including Africa) doing every sort of morally valuable work you can think of that I could fill up many planes. While I highly regard all these efforts, I also wish there could be more business people with enough balls to invest here and employ local people.

Law as a tool for development?

kelly_mcmillanBy Kelly McMillan

After finishing an undergraduate degree in international development studies, I was eager for some “real field experience”. Sure, I had participated in a number of valuable development-related internships in Canada, but I wanted a taste of how Development (as industry) operates on the ground. In 2006, I headed to Cameroon to participate in a 10-month internship on housing rights. I touched on a wide range of projects over those months, from trainings on income-generating activities for women, to facilitating the commercialization of local produce, to improving an existing microcredit facility, to organizing workshops on gender-based violence, to offering legal information seminars on housing and family law issues.

It was this last experience that ultimately motivated me to study law. Over the course of that year, I was exposed to a number of consultants in various fields passing through the organization and offering their expertise with concrete, tangible results. I felt my background in IDS was insufficient to allow me to make any really meaningful contribution. In particular, I was frustrated by the small scale of the community-based interventions I was involved in, and was discouraged by the lack of immediate results in some of the more policy-oriented initiatives. I felt that law—and community legal services in particular—would be my own “tool” to use to further women’s rights in the international context.

So, four years later, I was thrilled to have been selected for McGill CHRLP’s internship placement at the Refugee Law Project. I have already worked for two legal clinics in Montreal, and love the satisfaction that comes from solving a real human being’s concrete problem. It was a perfect combination of my IDS background and legal skills.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have come as so much of a shock to me that a few short weeks into my internship, the things that seemed less significant to me in my first overseas experience are the exact ones I find starkly absent in my present placement—namely, small-scale income-generating activities, vocational training programs and microcredit facilities! Not to mention an overarching philosophy of what is trying to be achieved.

On one of my first days, a counsellor at RLP summed up the general feeling of frustration I have since heard echoed by a number of RLP staff: “I refuse to counsel a hungry refugee!”

For someone who had initially been so optimistic about the promise of legal aid in development, this was a disturbing thing to hear. I have been thinking about it more and more: legal aid and psychosocial support is well and good, but is not enough for a person who fails to meet even the basic daily needs of herself and her family. Many refugees wait outside RLP all day without a meal. Many of the children cannot attend school for want of funds for transportation, uniforms and supplies and so instead work as house girls under oftentimes harsh conditions. I have heard the children themselves articulate education as their single biggest priority. As Intake Officer, a majority of my clients’ problems are not really legal, but medical or financial.

Although, admittedly, one organization cannot do everything, perhaps CONGEH did have the right recipe after all: an integrated approach focusing on finding sustainable ways to meet communities’ basic needs first, with some small resources to address individual legal problems in the short-term, but with a greater emphasis on preventing the legal issues from arising through information campaigns. I certainly don’t have an easy answer to this (surely there isn’t one), but now I have an even greater respect for (and am more in tune to) the priorities as identified by refugees, rather than donors.

So while Uganda’s theme for this year’s world refugee day (June 20th) is “Self-Reliance: Life Beyond Relief Aid”, I am perplexed by an almost total lack of services available to Kampala’s refugees to assist them in actually building such a life. For a person who has just lost everything, a start-up loan could go a long way…

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