Cameroon: How I Broke Out From a ‘Female Cell’

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Posted August 15, 2017 from Cameroon

I was locked in an invisible cell for too long; for 26 years, I dwelled in darkness and bondage. I was blinded and it never even occurred to me that I was a prisoner. I was an unconscious criminal guilty of no crime, however, judged and sentenced. No one truly saw my chains, no one came to my rescue, my sympathizers simply worsened my situation. They said I sounded ‘impossible’, and breaking out of the dungeon was a deviation from the norm. Naïve and ignorant, I thought it was safe for me to stay in my own echo chamber.

As a young girl, I was inexperienced and didn’t perceive that lessons such as; ‘women’s place is in the kitchen’ and the orientation on the need for me to stay in the ‘private space’ were meant to limit my dreams and stop me from accessing lifetime opportunities. I spent over two decades, trying to prove my worth as a ‘virtuous woman’. I had to engage in all sorts of energy sapping and time-consuming domestic activities. While I was made to understand that it was my place to do household chores, I envied boy children around me who were left to do the math. I felt my life had no value and I was heading nowhere. There were times I sacrificed school days to perform household duties in a male-dominated family. Ignorantly, I languished through the rough path of relegation simply because of my sex.

Later in life, I read literature about female convicts and came to the realization that I was no better than them. The only difference was that I was not behind bars. I learned that some female convicts typically wake up at 6 am, 5 am and sometimes even at 3:30 am. I was no different from them because waking up very early to carry out assorted chores was a routine for me. I would wake up at 5 am to cook for my brothers while they simply slept till dawn. I prepared breakfast, heated water, cleaned dishes and tidied the compound before going to school, while my brothers only had to shower and have their breakfast. During big family events like weddings and funerals, I worked all night preparing food for people. I was judged and sentenced, with my crime, unfortunately, being the fact that ‘I was a girl’.

Literature also says female convicts are coerced into sex in return for favours, exposed to the risk of abuse/rape, and used as objects of entertainment for men. I grew up watching half-naked female models on TV parading in front of decently dressed men and I inadvertently made to understand that women are sex objects and should dress to attract men. While at University, many of my mates were forced into sex in exchange for ‘good grades”, others raped. My case was not any different. I remember being approached by two lecturers to have sex with them in exchange for good grades. My mates and I weren’t different from convicts. We were simply considered as ‘sex objects’, meant for men’s pleasure.

Through reading, I also learned that female inmates were checked and counted during the day and at night. My father checked his female children during the day and especially during the nights. We were not supposed to keep late hours but my brothers could. We were not even allowed to wear trousers, it was ’unchristian’, they said. I wore tight loins covering my feet, sometimes finding it extremely difficult to walk. My crime was that I was a ‘weaker sex’ vulnerable to abuse and should be protected.

As a woman, I had no opportunity to obtain a loan from micro finance institutions to start up my own business. This is the challenge still faced by many girls/women today. Since I could not inherit property due to traditional barriers, I had no collateral to secure loans. My dreams to start a business at a young age were shattered, I remained dependent for a very long time. At some point, I felt that some female inmates had more access and rights to family resources than I did. I was declared ‘another man’s property’ and could not inherit my father’s property reserved strictly for his male children.

At 26 years I was engaged for marriage. When I visited my husband-to-be, I remember him telling me that to qualify to finally marry him, I needed to cut interactions with neighbours and rather concentrate on house chores. His reason for locking me out from the rest of the world was that I will be ‘intoxicated’. As if this was not enough, he insisted that I must change my denomination and join his. He said because he was rich, when we get married I will stay at home and take care of the children while he works. He undermined my many years of hard work and study in University, equating my master degree to routine domestic work with no opportunity for growth. It did not matter to him how I felt. Another suitor told me that to qualify to marry him, I had to prove my fertility and be 4 months pregnant before he takes me to the ‘alter’ for our church wedding. I refused attempts by the two suitors to talk me down from living my own dreams and simply become a housewife. Therefore, at age 26, I was considered as a desperate single lady, with limited opportunities to marry and be a ‘Mrs’, a title some single ladies are said to be desperate for.

My experiences made me build a wall of resistance around me. But more importantly, I was convicted of the idea that I wasn’t here on earth to be tossed around because of my femaleness. The more I pondered on my purpose, the more I became aware of the fact I had been born a convict and made to live in chains. No longer was I to listen to the voices without, ‘be submissive’, ‘you must know how to cook, it is the way to a man’s heart’, ’you cannot inherit any family property’ ‘your place is in the kitchen’ ‘watch your weight because men love thin girls’, ‘you must marry and have children’, ‘the man is the bread winner,’ ‘you are some one’s property,’ and ‘to be respected, you must be a ‘Mrs’. These voices stirred anger in me. But I decided to convert the anger into positive action. It was time to break loose my chains.

As I became more aware of my own ordeal, I became a solution seeker for the problems I faced because I was a woman. I created a group of 15 empowered ladies, devoted to advocating for gender equality in my community. Like female inmates, the similarity of the various hardships we had gone through, had built a strong sense of female solidarity in us. Our objective was clearly defined, ‘to break into female cells and free all the captives’.

Though subtle in our approach, we were steadfast. We made use of every opportunity to raise awareness on women’s right, building self-esteem and exposing women to career opportunities. We were surprised with how many sisters were in bondage. Many willing to come out of bondage, yet others were not bold enough to challenge the status quo, rather calling us ‘radicals’. Although we met with strong resistance, we knew there was no victory in giving up.

Along the years, we met many women’s rights activist nationally and internationally, negotiated partnerships with organizations involved in women’s empowerment which facilitated identification, referrals, and intervention in abused cases. We succeeded because we were devoted, commitment, determined, steadfast, relentless, and unstoppable. Now, we are spread across the world and still steadfast in our fight.

Today I celebrate my new status, ‘I am an ‘ex-convict’, never to be a prisoner of society’s perception of women again. Although memories of my past periodically float my mind, they give me a reason to advocate for others without losing faith in the change I dream for. Ex-convicts neither sleep nor slumber. They are intentionally helping to free others at all times.

This post was submitted in response to Share Your Story On Any Topic.

Comments 10

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Louisashei
Aug 15, 2017
Aug 15, 2017

Dear Clodine,

What an inspirational piece. Thank you for speaking out on this issue, i understand you because i was once a convict but just like you am an ex-convict and working towards making others ex-convicts.

Courage

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Aug 18, 2017
Aug 18, 2017

Hello Louisa,

Thank you for the encouragement. Am glad to hear we are all ex-convicts. Please let's not relent our effort in freeing others.

Thank you

Sally maforchi Mboumien
Aug 15, 2017
Aug 15, 2017

Hello Clodine

My sister and activist that i know personally. Thank you for this piece. I had never thought of the gender norms in our community as a prison thanks for the metaphor. I feel bad because with efforts from many "ex-convicts" some women have refused to get out of their prison cell since endurance is their definition of relationship. I agree with all the misconceptions you cited above but how could you not mention the almost legalised one given every girl on her wedding day. " As you are going to your husband's house on no account should you come back here because what we have eaten today we will never vomit it" Oh my sister how this warning has sent many to an early grave because they had to endure marriage.

I like the power you are putting in this course which I find echoed very much in this phrase "never to be a prisoner of society’s perception of women again." Call on me whenever you need me to add my voice to the course

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Aug 18, 2017
Aug 18, 2017

Oh my Mentor and Sister,

Am privilege to have you in my world. Your readiness and flexibility is a push to my activism. Thank you for your willingness in supporting this course. Will contact you so we explore strategies to free female prisoners from invisible cells. 

Thank you sister

Sally maforchi Mboumien
Aug 21, 2017
Aug 21, 2017

waiting my dear. Keep soaring we must get the change we want

Nakinti
Aug 16, 2017
Aug 16, 2017

My dear sister, Clodine,

You have said it like it is. I can relate to all of this. You are one strong woman who braved the odds of a prison cell and came out as a proud ex convict. Yes, that is what is important. It is time for us to deconstruct all the misleading socio-cultural constructions. It begins with us, with you and me.

Thank you dear for the courage and for sounding the whistle loud enough. Thank you for this compelling piece!

One love

Nakinti

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Aug 18, 2017
Aug 18, 2017

Dear Mentor,

Thank you for your encouragement. Remember I am a proud ex-convict because you are my role model. You thought me how to fight and grab opportunities.

Thank you Nakinti

Kudos RESCUE WOMEN CAMEROON

Chi Karen
Aug 16, 2017
Aug 16, 2017

You have truly defined the status of women according to culture and stereotypes (prisoners). I'm so glad you realised this and I pray that most women will be courageous enough to declare themselves ex-convicts too and join in the fight for a better future for all

Clodine Mbuli Shei
Aug 18, 2017
Aug 18, 2017

Hello Karen,

Thank you for the encouragement. Our wish is that women see beyond their confinements and work to free themselves and others.

Thank you for your support

Janine Labistour
Apr 10
Apr 10

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