Cameroonian women bear brunt of land rights marginalisation

Beatrice Anga*, a vegetable farmer in Santa Akum, Santa subdivision, Mezam division of the North West region, is standing at…

Beatrice Anga*, a vegetable farmer in Santa Akum, Santa subdivision, Mezam division of the North West region, is standing at the door of her two-roomed mud-wall house, brooding about the upsetting experience of her dwindling vegetable harvest and sales in the last few years, caused by insufficient land to expand production.

Her poor vegetable harvest has seriously reduced her sales, significantly downsizing her income to support the school needs and feeding of her children.But even more terrifying is the thought that the land on which she used to cultivate with her husband some ten years ago and family house they lived in, have been taken away from her.

Farming over 10 hectares of land, they had both comfortably produced diversified vegetable crops, such as cabbage, licks, carrots, tomatoes, pepper, green beans among others and fed their family, selling the surplus to raise family income.
In a country where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, her family was counted among the well-to-do in her rural setting.

But things changed when her husband died ten years ago. Their land and house was taken away from her by her late husband’s family.
“Just after my husband was buried, my in-laws confiscated the land on which we had been cultivating for the past years and the bigger family house we lived in,” she laments.

“Today I am struggling on a rented, smaller piece of land and this has reduced my yields and income by more than 70 percent,” Anga says, virtually falling short of bursting into sobs.

Traditional practices in the area, just like in many parts of the North West and South West regions, give the right to inherit land exclusively to men.

Although women produce 80 percent of food needs in Cameroon, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, they own just two percent of the land. Women in most rural communities in the North West and South West regions are the majority farmers, but in most cases they own the crops while the men own the land.

Despite the wave of optimism that swept across the globe after the much-heralded global conference that set ambitious targets to transform the lives of women the world over, inequality between men and women especially in land ownership in many African cultures still persists, experts say.

Over 25 years after that milestone event, the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, China, in 1995, women in the North West and South West regions of Cameroon, like many counterparts in other communities, are still to see and feel the effects of any change and are asking to what extent promised reforms have been implemented. Social actors have denounced the continuous abuse of land ownership rights for women by some communities.

According to a study by World Rainforest Movement, WFM, published in 2016, women in Cameroon still face enormous challenges with regards to having access to land.

The report said since the Head of State, Paul Biya, announced the launch of reforms at the agro-pastoral show on January 17, 2011, the issue of land tenure has been at the centre of debate in Cameroon.  It also mentioned that even more central is the issue of women’s access to land, since, as women’s rights groups point out, women could be unwilling or unable to invest in land they do not own.

Customary law, the report said, applies in a predominantly patriarchal context, in which women do not inherit land and consequently have no formal control over it. According to some women’s rights defenders, it is necessary to redress this situation since this exclusion weakens women’s ability to invest in the use of land.

“Inalienable right to own land”

Social worker and clinical psychologist, Gladys Ekie, a victim of land rights marginalisation, has been advocating the rights of women as far as land ownership is concerned.

“I am Princess Gladys Ekie from the Aghem paramount Fondom in Menchum division of the North West region. My father was the late Fon Mbahmbi II. So I hail from the matrilineal and patrilineal succession. My concern is with the matrilineal succession where they believe that a girl child or woman has no space when it comes to land inheritance,” she said.

“My case as an individual is that which I have a serious issue up to this moment with my uncles who don’t believe that as a girl child I have the right to own land which is my inalienable right,” she disclosed.

Gladys Ekie (Right): “Women must break the silence”

“Like a human being, I don’t see why I should be deprived of land ownership despite my gender. My uncles, using some obnoxious traditional explanations, said tomorrow if I am called to go for marriage or my husband is not from Aghem, I will take the land asset and transfer to him and then my children may not be recognised. I don’t know whether these children have committed a crime,” she stated.

“So from all indications my daughter too is still going to suffer the same plight. That is why I stand to break the silence and say no, because I have the right to land ownership. We went to court because of that and I am proud to say I believe it is my land. I have my documents now for the land and I am proud to say I am happy,” she said.

Women rights activist, Ewi nee Kang Elisabeth, CEO of civil society organisation, Precious Sisters, corroborates Gladys Ekie, saying: “I am also from Aghem were we practice matrilineal inheritance. But this very practice has made it difficult for a woman to inherit property including land. This is because if you want to have land owned by your husband, it can only come to you through your marriage life”.

“A woman gets married and toils with her husband to acquire property including landed property and when her husband dies his family comes to say she doesn’t belong to the family any longer and the land belongs to his nephews,” she regrets.

On her part, Engineer in Environment and Sustainable Development, Josephine Yelang, CEO of South West-based civil society organisation, For A Sustainable Environmental Development, FASEDEV, says the issue is not peculiar to North West and South West regions.

Ewi née Kang Elisabeth (Left) blames situation on obnoxious traditional practices

“Generally, women form the vulnerable populations in most local or indigenous communities, if not all in Cameroon. The issue of marginalisation of women on rights to land is not peculiar to the North West and South West regions. It could even be worse in the North, Far North or East Regions of the country,” she says.

“Issues related to gender and land rights have a lot to do with long existing traditions in patriarchal communities, but a lot more on the poor natural resource management systems that govern them,” Yelang states.

Traditional practices to blame

Ewi goes ahead to blame the situation of women’s land rights marginalisation on cultural practices.

“Traditional practices are to blame for the land rights marginalisation of women. The Aghem tradition that practices matrilineal inheritance is a serious impediment for women to own land. As soon as you get into marriage, you are embedded in that marriage and you become the property of the man,” she says.

“I am a victim. I am living with my husband; I don’t have anything but I am a hard-working woman. Everything that I work for belongs to my husband. And when he is not there it goes to his family. It will depend on the type of woman I am to fight back,” Ewi says.

On her part, Comfort Mussa, Founder/Coordinator of SisterSpeak237, an organisation that amplifies the voices and actions of women and minority groups, says: “Women in some communities in Cameroon are still being marginalised as far as ownership of land is concerned. We have traditional practices that justify this. There are traditions and customs where it is very clear that women cannot inherit land and cannot be gifted land. This limits too many women from owning land”.

“This phenomenon is based on those who own the land. And mostly it is the family heads, predominantly men. They own the land and decide what to do with it; who to sell it to, who to gift it to or who to pass to as inheritance. Culture, for so long, has determined who owns land and for so long it has been men. There are some land owners, who, in the past, would not even sell their land to women who had money and wanted to buy. But this is changing because if you are a businessman and you are selling land, it doesn’t matter if the buyer is a man or a woman,” she says.

However, Mussa holds the opinion that this depends on the families concerned.

“I for one, my father gifted me land…He showed my brother where he will build and also showed me a land and encouraged me to build on it. This is because of his enlightenment and he doesn’t discriminate between his kids, be it a son or a daughter,” she adds.

While stating that there are few exceptions to the rule, Mussa states: “Generally, it is believed that daughters will grow up and marry off into different communities and so if you give them the land it is going to be wasted. But there are women who, even if they marry out of their community and they have land, they know how to develop the land. There are exceptions and things are beginning to change”.

“Denied ownership of land I bought”

Another victim of land rights marginalisation in the North West region is Kuchambi Claudette, a teacher in GBHS Mbengwi in Momo division. She says in the 90s she bought a land in Mankon, Bamenda from a certain Mami Esther Neh. But after farming and planting palms trees on the land for many years, the woman’s son came in from nowhere, saying he is the successor of his father and claiming ownership of the land.

“After some time, we met on the piece of land and his mother even cursed him on the land, saying that if it is not me working on it, no other person will do so,” Kuchambi says, adding that “but her son kept insisting that he owns the land and not his mother”.

“The land is still lying fallow till today even though the woman and her son have long passed away,” she discloses.

Societal stereotypes about women

Meanwhile, society stereotypes about women are also said to be heightening land rights marginalisation of women.

Gladys Ekie concurs, saying: “Gender stereotypes have a very great role as well in societal norms. Society sees a woman as a second class citizen. That’s why when a boy child is crying they say ‘don’t cry like a girl’. Is the boy child not a human being? So what stops a woman from putting up gigantic structures, owning huge hectares of land and developing this land?” she questions.

“Society has a very derogative eye on the womenfolk in terms of developing or owning land assets and I am pleading that let society allow the woman take her place she duly deserves as nature gave her. The woman is a stronger folk to reckon with. Once a woman takes a decision you see the family develops,” Ekie adds.

According to Comfort Mussa: “Women have been conditioned by society to think that land ownership is a man’s thing. So there are many women who do not aspire to own their own land”.

“There should be fair access to land”

Josephine Yelang opines that there should be fair access to land between men and women.

“There are no governing laws that stipulate that women should not inherit land. On the contrary, my research shows that land distribution especially in rural areas is a problem; there are no legal frameworks that clearly define how land should be distributed for the benefit of women especially, who bear the brunt of the country’s agriculture, for example,” she says.

“The importance of generating legal frameworks, institutions and programmes that promote fair access to land, in particular for those most disadvantaged such as women, indigenous and displaced people, lies in the fact they will provide the benefits of a more just social structure, thereby reducing the possibility of violent conflicts and help promote long-term sustainable economic development,” Yelang submits.

Community property

However, Fon Gwan Mbahnyamsig III, traditional ruler of Guzang, Momo division of the North West region, says land in most rural areas is considered as community property.

“Inheritance, ownership and marginalised seemingly raise a lot of eyebrows nowadays when women are concerned. In the days of old women were and still are today especially in the rural areas concerned with feeding the family. This is done from the farms assigned them by the head of the family,” he says.

Fon Gwan Mbahnyamsig III: “Land is valued and considered as a community property”

“I may state here that land, whose value in economic terms only appreciates, is most valued and considered as a community property. It is in this regard that there is sharing of land for common use. Those who propagate marginalisation are those who want to hoard land at the expense of others,” Fon Mbahnyamsig states.

Impediment to women’s economic development

Peace/gender specialist, Rosaline A. Obah, National Coordinator of Community Media Network, CCMN, says women’s lack of access to land ownership is a huge impediment to their economic development.

“There are so many institutions where grants are given to small holder farmers but as a woman you have to prove that you own land. There are some women who want to get a loan from microfinance institutions but have to prove that they own land as collateral security,” she says.

“This is an impediment to women’s development because at first women didn’t know that they could acquire land and their names appear on the land certificate,” Obah adds.

“Break the silence”

To come out of this seeming jinx of land rights marginalisation against women, many people we talked to, said women must begin to break the silence and speak up against the “injustice”.

“Education is the key. I encourage women to break the silence and cry out loud and strong about such marginalisation,” Gladys Ekie advocates.

Legal perspective

Meanwhile, human rights lawyer, Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, Founder of Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, CHRDA, says there is no provision in the law that says a woman cannot inherit or own land.

“Any law that is repugnant to natural justice, equity and good conscience cannot be applicable. There is no provision in the law that a woman cannot own land. These are customs and traditional practices. If we follow the case of I think Lum Vs Manka in the Mankon tradition, it was said that women could also inherit land,” he says.

Barrister Agbor Balla says with the law on non-discrimination, the Cameroonian penal and criminal procedure code that talks about non-discrimination and taking into consideration the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international governance, civil and political rights and the Cameroon constitution which talk about non-discrimination, such customs and traditional practices cannot hold grounds in a court of law.

“Women do own land now, and have land titles and the rest,” he says.

“Traditional practices are that women are not supposed to inherit or own land but these traditional activists cannot hold their day in a court of law. With the development of things, you cannot prevent a woman from owning land on the grounds that she doesn’t have the right to inherit land,” Agbor Balla asserts.

Glimmer of hope

Nonetheless, there is a silver lining in the dark cloud.

Comfort Mussa says perceptions are beginning to change.

“I think these obnoxious traditional practices are beginning to change. We have instances where women have inherited family land and where women have been gifted land. So it boils down to the individual families concerned. If a father wants to give land to his daughter, there is no custom that will stop him from doing so. As more parents are being enlightened, these customs are changing,” she discloses.

“Land owners are becoming enlightened and we are seeing more women own land now. I know of women under 50 or 40 who have bought land and are developing it,” she adds.

The family law of 2015, it is believed if well implemented, will help enforce women’s property rights.

The Minister of Women Empowerment and the Family, Marie Therese Ondoa,in her address during the 2015 celebration of Women’s Day in Yaounde, had said: “The new family law already drafted will hopefully be another step in helping women realise the constitutional promise of equality in land ownership”.

The way forward

According to humanitarian, human rights and peace-building advocate, Baiye Frida Ebai, Executive Director of Limbe-based civil society organisation, Blessing Associates for Women and Children, BAWAC Cameroon, there is need to change the often repeated notion in most cultures that women should get only the smaller piece of pie.
“For real political and social change to take place, there are three pillars that need to be addressed. We need legislation that protects equal rights for women, mechanisms that provide for political and social equity, and a change in social and cultural perceptions of women,” Baiye says.

On her part, Rosaline A. Obah says: “Women should endeavour to navigate the legal procedures to own land, even if it means bringing third parties such as their own close allies in their husband’s family. While waiting for an official legal text on managing this issue, women should use the available legal channels to consolidate their access to and ownership of land”.

To Ewi Elizabeth, women must bear in mind that they have an inalienable right to own land and thus acquire theirs, not only wait to inherit their husband’s land. She also insists that the conditions and documentations required to establish land certificates should not be made difficult for women.

Comfort Mussa says women should read more about land rights and land laws for if women are not interested in acquiring and developing land, it will ever be out of their reach. She adds that they should learn more as far as what entails in buying, owning land and what documents are required to establish land certificate.

“Women need to actively roll back the marginalisation and customs in the communities that discriminate and limit their access to land ownership. When they get more knowledge and are more aware how this marginalisation manifests, they need to actively undo and roll it back. It will take the women to lead the change that they want to see.  Women who have owned land, should also share their stories to inspire others,” Mussa posits.

While saying there should be no blame game as far as women and land rights marginalisation is concerned, Fon Gwan Mbahnyamsig shares Mussa’s view of knowledge-building.

“We need constant education and especially with the recent land laws of the country. More and more women these days own land with certificates and we see on daily basis what they do with it in the interest of the family. The bottom line is that land is a common family commodity,” the traditional ruler suggests.

Kuckambi Claudette believes sensitisation and awareness raising can play the trick of bringing women out of the doldrums because “for long it did not occur to women that they can have land certificates in their names.

“So if we do a lot of awareness for women to know that they can own land and their names are on land certificates, women will not feel marginalised,” she notes.

Josephine Yelang advises that women should keep advocating for their rights to land and other natural resources as it’s their legitimate rights.

“It is also important to note that if government’s strategy to fight poverty and hunger relies on sustainable agriculture in rural areas, women form an important part of the actors that can make that happen and land is a prerequisite requirement to achieving this mission. Therefore, women must sit up to see their rights to empower themselves economically through acquisition of landed resources respected,” she recommends.

 Dismantle speed brakes

To Gladys Ekie, government must dismantle any speed brakes on women’s path to acquire and own land.

“There are speed breaks that the state has put because as a women if you go to our law courts or land tenure and state property services they will start telling you that you need people to prove that the land for which you want to establish land certificate for is actually yours. If you are a widow, you have to present a letter of administration. Then, again if the woman is from a family that is well to do they, the use money to suppress that woman’s rights. That is where the woman still suffers,” she regrets.

“So it means the law doesn’t give room for a commoner, a woman with an average background. Our laws still disfavour them. My advice is that let the law be flat. Let them treat women the same as they do with men,” she maintains.


*Name changed for security of the source

**Solomon Tembang is the Managing Editor of Cameroon’s lone English-Language daily, The Guardian Post.He has special interest in environment, politics, extractive industries, human and digital rights, health, agriculture