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Women in Politics

Looking to Cameroon’s Women Senators

Ndomi Magareth, sows bean seeds on her small piece of land in Njombe. The lives of Cameroon's women could change for the better now that 20 women were elected to the country's upper house of parliament. Credit: Monde Kingsley Nfor/IPS

YAOUNDE, Jun 6 2013 (IPS) - Marlyse Aboui, a 40-year-old nurse, has still not gotten over the astonishment she felt when she heard that Cameroon’s President Paul Biya had nominated her to the senate.

“I feel like I am in a dream that I will wake up from at any minute. When I first learnt that I had been appointed to the senate, I told myself that it couldn’t be true. I asked myself what I could possibly have done to receive this high appointment from the president,” she told IPS.

As the local party chair of the National Alliance for Democracy and Progress, an opposition party in eastern Cameroon, Aboui is one of only 20 women in the 100-member Cameroonian senate. Seventy senators, 17 of whom are women, were elected on Apr. 14 in the country’s first-ever senatorial elections. Biya was required to nominate the remaining 30 senators, and included in his nominations were three women.

“It is a great honour that I truly appreciate,” Aboui said.

“Women can contribute much to politics. We have often seen that some conflicts are narrowly avoided thanks to their powers of persuasion." -- Justine Diffo

Nicole Okala Bilai, a senator from the ruling Cameroon People’s Democratic Movement (CPDM), shared Aboui’s excitement. The female politician, who was elected in Mbagassina in central Cameroon, hopes to use her presence in the senate to radically reform this Central African nation’s schools.

Women’s rights organisations and politicians say that the appointment of women to the upper house of parliament was timely.

Yvonne Muma Bih, a national executive committee member of the main opposition party, the Social Democratic Front, is one politician who welcomed the appointments.

“The rise of women to this office offers some encouragement to those still suffering under the yoke of male domination, who believe that women cannot pursue political careers. We have done better than certain European democracies and this is something to be celebrated,” she told IPS.

The secretary general of CPDM, Jean Nkuete, told IPS “female candidates were strongly encouraged throughout the course of this election, not just to meet gender quotas, but mainly to highlight the place our party gives to women and to their vision.”

However, Justine Diffo, national co-ordinator of the NGO More Women in Politics Network, a support network for women’s political participation, told IPS “20 percent is inadequate.”

“Women can contribute much to politics. We have often seen that some conflicts are narrowly avoided thanks to their powers of persuasion. Why then deny them the 30 percent (women’s representation demanded by women’s groups)?”

According to Diffo, the only way to fully address women’s marginalisation “would have been for the president to nominate 15 women out of the 30 senators that he is mandated to appoint.”

However, the Association to Combat Violence Against Women believes there is reason to applaud the progress made.

In fact, Cameroon’s Electoral Code of Apr. 19, 2012 provides a way to reduce the existing gender gap in electoral contests, through various forms of affirmative action during the electoral processes. Articles 151, 164, 181, and 218 of the Electoral Code aim to increase women’s participation in politics.

A study by the National Institute of Statistics (INS), published on International Women’s Day, Mar. 8, pointed to a slight overall increase in the number of women in Cameroon’s national assembly.

According to the INS, between 1992 and 2002, the number of women in the national assembly dropped from 23 to 10 out of 180 members of parliament. However, between 2002 and 2012, the number of female members of parliament increased from 10 to 25.

At the local level, between 2007 and 2012 out of 360 mayors only 24 were women. Furthermore, Cameroon has six female ministers of state out of 30. There are also four female director generals in state-owned entities.

Claude Abe, a sociology lecturer at the Catholic University of Central Africa in Yaounde, the capital city of this country of 20 million people, explained the causes of poor female representation in decision-making positions.

“Structurally, Cameroonian society sits between tradition and modernity. As a result, there are many persistent and long-standing elements from tradition that continue to play a part in our society,” he told IPS.

“There is one category of women who remain stumbling blocks for other women – they are not prepared to vote for a woman simply because she is a woman,” he said.

He added that many men still believed that a woman’s place was in the home, while a number of women still believed that they could not play a role in politics.

In addition, he said, “Politics also requires a lot of money. Invariably, the majority of women are financially dependent on men and this limits their ability to get involved in politics.”

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