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.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.