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DEVELOPMENT-CAMEROON: Are Women the Magic Bullet for “Electoral Apathy”?

Mohamadou Houmfa

YAOUNDE, Mar 12 2010 (IPS) - A support network for women’s political participation, is challenging head-on what it calls “electoral apathy”, after noting a growing trend in electoral abstention.

The civil society organisation, More Women in Politics, took advantage of International Women’s Day commemorations to address the issue and discuss some of its own strategies during a conference in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon, on Mar. 8.

The Central African country’s 2007 legislative and municipal elections in particular were marked by their low levels of participation.

According to figures published by the minister of territorial administration and decentralisation, only five million Cameroonians registered to vote in 2007 out of a total estimated population of 18 million. And 62 percent of those, three million Cameroonians, actually voted.

The reclaiming of Cameroon’s electorate, obviously tired of political games, is now the battle cry of many political groups and several civil society organisations in the country.

The More Women in Politics network is part of this same movement. It was launched by a group of women led by Justine Diffo, a lawyer who teaches at the University of Yaounde II.

“Women alone account for 52 percent of the Cameroonian population, so they carry a potentially determining demographic weight that should be mobilised for a massive registration and greater political participation electoral process,” Diffo told IPS.

“Women must register to vote. But first they need their official documents. Today there are still women who go about their daily business without a national identity card,” Catherine Abena, Minister for the Defense of Women and Families, said during the conference.

Guy Parfait Songué, a political scientist and lecturer at the University of Douala, the economic capital, said that the low participation of Cameroonians – including women – in the political process has its roots in the violence of the decolonisation process.

“There was a veritable crisis of citizenship in Cameroon. We must not forget that the heart of this country was decimated before independence and during the 10 following years. The nationalists who fought for the country’s independence were decimated by napalm by French settlers. This has weakened national sentiment,” he said.

For the academic, weak political involvement – from both men and women – in Cameroon is also due to psychological and anthropological causes.

“Asking people to be involved in politics is tantamount to spurring them into leadership. But we cannot promote the spirit of leadership of an individual while refusing to value their potential. It starts in the family where children’s leadership (whether boys and girls) is prohibited. They are taught fear and doubt instead. You cannot foster the leadership potential of a child after denigrating them their whole life. Parents should start by changing their relationships with children,” Songué explained.

The ministry for the defence of women and families agrees that there is a real problem. “Women have weak political culture. And texts that establish gender equality, such as the constitution, are not very well known or understood,” said Jean-Pierre Makanga, the ministry’s deputy director for family rights advocacy.

This is despite the fact that political parties advocate for more gender parity. One of these is the the Rassemblement démocratique du peuple camerounais (Democratic Rally of the Cameroon People), the party currently in power.

“The party rarely follows the rules set by its hierarchy in regards to integrating women and youth in its candidate list during legislative and municipal elections,” Makanga noted, highlighting the attitude that hampers women’s political participation.

However, the representation of women in political life in Cameroon has improved slightly due to the feminist advocacy and government efforts.

Quoting the ministry of territorial administration and decentralisation, Makanga noted that in 1982 there were 336 women in municipal councils as opposed to 1,651 today. Progress was also registered in parliament where a woman was elected for the first time in 1957. The National Assembly now has 10 women MPs out of 180.

But progress is still insufficient, according Makanga, since the creation of the National Assembly women represented only 8.41 of those in parliament, as opposed to 11.16 of elected officials in municipal councils.

“Women should get involved in associations and groups, and not only to pay dues, eat, drink and assist each other in difficult times,” said Songué.

“I’ll use every gathering to spread the message: women’s vote is key to choosing representatives and especially in electing other women,” Ngala Esther Ntale vowed. Ntale is an MP and member of the Social Democratic Front, the main opposition party.

Senate elections are planned this year in Cameroon since President Paul Biya has announced the establishment of a senate, while the next presidential election is expected in 2011.

Aware that “elections are a success only if we managed to mobilise a critical mass of 60 percent of the electorate,” the “More Women in Politics” network intends to take decisive action to mobilise 52 percent of Cameroon women so that the voice of women is now heard more forcefully, Diffo stressed.


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