Gender and Conservation Issues in Cameroon
While in Cameroon to lead an Advice Project workshop and to be a speaker at the annual MEC conference, I spoke with hundreds of people to get their ideas about how gender-based violence and conservation issues are most impacting their communities. Along with two teen students, I took over twenty hours of video interviews, visited rural villages and markets, spent time speaking with journalists and leaders of NGOs, universities, and local businesses, and simply acted as a witness so that I could learn as much as I could about the needs of everyday Cameroonians as possible. I returned to New York with a greater understanding of some of the problems Advice Project students in Cameroon are strategizing solutions for, including:
Rape is rampant and grossly underreported due to not only blaming and shaming survivors, but because many people simply don’t understand the definition of the crime. It is a widespread, culturally-ingrained view that only “bad girls” are raped, and that girls and women can only be raped if they wear revealing clothing or spend time in “wrong places.” When the rapes of “good girls” are acknowledged, the crimes are generally dealt with by family members (meaning, not dealt with at all) or by local leaders such as fons (kings). Breast ironing is a culturally-ingrained practice in Cameroon, and one that is a
painful, desperate, solution to the problem of rape. Grandmothers and mothers use pestles and
stones heated over fires to pound the budding breasts of young girls in an order to prevent their breasts from growing. This is done in an effort to keep girls looking younger so that they won’t attract the gaze of men. Hawking, which is the selling of goods on the streets or in markets, is an activity expected of many Cameroonian children so that they can add much-needed income to the gross income of families and also to contribute to school costs. Hawking, however, often leads to children not going
to school or not having time to adequately prepare for school. It often endangers children – particularly girls – by placing them in compromising situations in alleys and storefronts. Many girls are raped while hawking.
Because rape is so rampant, and due to the stigma attached to being raped, many girls don’t report their rapists, even to their own families. This means that many girls become pregnant as teens, which brings shame to their families, and often leads to prostitution Screen as the next income-generating activity. Many girls also contract HIV when they are raped. Melissa
interviewed many young hawkers, many of whom are expected to work from 7:00 a.m. until 5:00 or 8:00 p.m. Some of these children reported that they enjoyed their work because it enabled them to go to school, while others deflected the question, only responding that it was “expected.” Poverty is a global epidemic, with women and children being the most impacted. This epidemic is visible in Cameroon, and many girls aren’t able to go to school because their families don’t have the money to send them. Rainforest destruction: Much of
Cameroon’s primary growth rainforests have been cut down, but most people in the country don’t see this as a problem. Everywhere you look, the earth is green, and fields of palm trees cover fields. Therefore, everyday Cameroonians consider their country to be “forested.” The reality, however, is that the natural resources of the country are disappearing at a remarkable pace, contributing to climate change and a lack of jobs, especially for women. Also, practitioners of traditional medicine and people who live in
villages often hunt animals to use as medicine, for bushmeat, or as gifts to fons (who are believed to have the power to take animal form). Terrorism is a very real concern. While Boko Haram’s activities are primarily in Nigeria, young men in Cameroon – particularly those living in poverty – are lured into terrorists activities by offers of motorbikes, jobs, and money. People live in fear of terrorists, and the Cameroon government has responded by putting up roadblocks to check cars. Unfortunately, these roadblocks are run by corrupt village, city, and government officials who don’t have the resources to actually find terrorists (for example, they look at IDs, but have no way to check them in a computerized system), but they do extort money from drivers. Cameroon has devoted 90 percent of its military
spending to fighting Boko Harem, and this simply isn’t sustainable. It’s a real problem. Fons try to take matters into their own hands by weeding out suspected terrorists, but often this leads to unfair trials and executions.
Teen girls in the Advice Project Bamenda class are already writing about the issues above, and we’ll direct more attention towards publishing their articles in the months to come.