Being an activist, one of the safest places you could think of being at and express your views without fear or shame is at a human rights meeting. But that is not the case as I have come to realize.
Last Dec, 2013, a meeting was held in Buea, Cameroon, to commemorate the international human rights day. Focus were on “problems and challenges faced by activists and NGO'S” both at a personal and professional level in addressing illegal land crabbing, while proposing new strategies and suggestions to help deal with the violation of people’s and indigenous land owners rights.
On that faithful day, Dec 09, 2013, I had to take over my colleague and continue with the second segment of the meeting. She had briefed me on what was discussed prior to my coming and I had to talk about the dress code law that had been implemented by the state since she had not gotten the chance to raise up the issue. And there was no way we could have let the meeting pass without us being there to represent the biggest violation of women’s rights at the time which involved dress code policy and policing. An act which WFAC strongly criticizes and condemns; for a dress code policing gives rooms for police officers and other citizens to sexually harass girls, as well as verbally, emotionally and physically torture them.
When I arrived the meeting hall, first thing I discovered was that the place was filled mostly with men, all demonstrating such a huge interest towards protecting indigenous peoples’ land rights. Everyone was so passionate about contributing towards ending illegal land grabbing. Including, the chairperson for the meeting, who happened to be the Regional Coordinator for the National Human Rights Commission, also spoke so passionately about how he hates people being humiliated and robbed off their rights, and how he could fight tirelessly and endlessly to not let another person violate the rights of another.
Amazingly, when I brought up women’s rights; the case of street harassment and extortion of money under the pretext of implementing the dress code law; the atmosphere immediately turned into a tensed one. The same activists who claimed to be fighting for human rights changed their positions to being against. Almost all the men present in the room turned against me, speaking very loudly and disorderly, referring to views I could hardly expatiate on as ignorant, misleading and nonsensical.
It was my first time to be faced with such insanity. I am not sure I handled that situation very well. I tried to composed myself, but deep inside me I was bubbling with anxiety and could hardly talk with ease. At some point, I asked them how they expect to understand my point if they are not willing to give me the opportunity to express my views.
The boss then ordered everyone to give me the floor. As soon as I started talking, I got the same reaction which was an unwillingness to even listen or understand my views. I pushed forward, focusing on those that were close to hear me. Thank goodness everyone eventually joined in the discussion. I brought up the issue of street harassment; police street harassment and the overall problem with the dress code law/policing. My aim was to make them aware of issues facing young girls and women, like street/sexual harassment, police street/sexual harassment, Police street/sexual harassment, public torture, bribery and corruption, all under the pretext of implementing the dress code law. Also the fact that street/sexual harassment and violent acts such as rape do not happen because of how a woman is dressed.
For instance, I pointed out my friend had been harassed for dressing a way they considered indecent with the majority of the people seeing nothing wrong with her dressing. And to prove how confused those people [police] are when it comes to this. I shared with them an experience and observation, how I met some groups of police and they had no problem with me wearing a certain dress until I pointed out I was harassed because of my dressing. The same officer who had said I was decently dressed, said “maybe it is because of this”; pointing to my chest. Added to that, the officer proudly spoke about how they beat up indecently dressed individuals brought to their office.
In spite of all the examples, on how police officers now have the excuse or motives to justify their violent act towards an individual girls and women; how the dress code policing is another controlling agenda over women’s body, it was evident that the men present at the meeting, still couldn’t get my point. Instead, they went to tell me how the police officer who had no problem with my dressing likes me. Then, they started by scrutinizing my dressing which they considered decent. I was then asked why I was not indecently dressed and concluded I really know how to dress; wearing a long skirt and long sleeves top. Some even said how my ideas are misleading and not African.
Their conclusion was we do not dress in a way they considered indecent. Since my colleague had been detained and I had talked about both our experiences it was concluded it was an attempt by us to tease the police because we dress decently. They spoke as though they live with us to know and decide what we wear all the time. These brought up a whole new topic. It was said we “women” can plan for harassment to occur so that we can use it to sabotage them, [men]. Though it’s all known that policemen in our locality are the No1 groups of people to sexually harass and stalk women, especially those we are around “long street”, “Clark’s Quarter” & “Mutengene”. These guys will not stop catcalling and making sexual, obscene advances towards women. When I also told them police men are fun off touching a woman’s breast and other sexual body parts, they denied.
There was one human rights activist I was familiar with who seemed angry by my accusation and told me to never say something like that again. Interesting, the few women present at the meeting agree with me, some even said, they do not feel safe in the hands of police men because if you were put in their protection against rape, they will be the ones to turn around and rape you
Again, while we were discussing, some people were itchy to go and so they called for the attention of the boss. In order words, these activists meant that women’s issues are not human right issues and therefore not important.
It is sad that even those at the human rights office refuse to see women’s human rights and human rights. And it is things like these that contribute greatly in making Cameroon a backward country. Such attitudes and backward ideas retard development.
This article is written by a Member of my Organization; Women For A Change, Cameroon. Just to share the experiences we have had, since we took a stance against the imposition of the dress code policy and policy.