Late last year Cameroon’s Minister of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, Marie-Therese Obama convened a press conference. Journalists were invited from all media outlets in the country. She came with at least three other government ministers and said she had a big announcement for women and girls in Cameroon. It was a landmark event. Very seldom in Cameroon does one witness four ministers in one press conference. There obviously was something of utmost importance for the nation. Well, this was her message:
“Young girls in Cameroon should avoid indecent dressing so as to avoid rape and other forms of sexual violence.”
May I just add that this exact same message was aired on national television and radio? Commentaries were made all in support of the above statement and women and girls were publicly, on national, regional and local media, blamed and shamed for sexual assault because in her words “they encourage men to attack them”.
The “campaign against indecent dressing” was launched.
As a result, Police and other law enforcers have been authorized to stop and attack any girl caught with an “indecent dress code” in the streets of Cameroon. Penalties range from stripping you naked to imprisonment with a fine. And all these coming from a minister of women’s empowerment, I couldn't believe my ears. I was actually at a grocery shop when I heard the radio article. I almost fainted.
Since then she has not come back to take back her words. Street harassment is now at high gear. Government-backed violence against women is strongly becoming the norm, and men more than ever before now have a strong voice to justify rape or any other form of harassment based on a woman’s dressing choice. As I speak, women and girls are being harassed in the streets of Cameroon because of their dress choices. In two university towns, reports have come in of girls dragged to a police station, had their heads shaved, beaten and stripped of their clothes with pairs of scissors.
In another town one girl had her skirt cut in four pieces straight to the ground by two police officers while hundreds of onlookers watched. Another woman had her entire black dress chopped to small chunks in the streets of the economic capital. Men now scream, boo at and verbally assault women daily in this country. Some now have the right to smack your butts and laugh when you notice, after all the government asked you to dress better right?
I am a blogger by the way. I blog about everything that I'm passionate about. I blog about violence, about rape and about women and girls as agents of peace. I blog about women’s rights and gender stereotypes and where to draw the line between education and intoxication. I blog about feminism, women leadership and issues affecting women and girls because they are the other half of this planet. I also blog about the fact that we unfortunately are not valued as that significant half.
So when I woke up to this news from our honorable minister, I couldn't help but update my Facebook status with an outburst of disappointment and rage. And little did I know that this would spark a social discourse and reveal some of the most dreadful notions, images and attitudes that society holds regarding the woman.
I first put up a blog post about this issue a day after the Minister made her press conference declaration. As scandalized as I was following the announcement, this feeling only got worse when comments started coming in response to my blog post. Comments came from a range of sources- from journalists to politicians, musicians and fellow activists, to students, teenagers, senior staff of renowned international organizations and senior citizens.
Of course there are like-minded people as myself questioning and challenging the raison d’être and implications of this law for women’s rights. But then there are people who would kill to prove that this law works. The conversation starts getting interesting when one person comments on the post “It is easy to take what is accessible than what is difficult to get. This is common sense. ” Then one other provocative commentator among other disturbing remarks said corrective rape may be the solution to indecent dressing: “Have you heard of “corrective rape”? Find out on Google and you will be amazed how it works in South Africa and some states down south”.
This same guy who claims he reports for CNN goes ahead to say the following: “Causes of rape according to me: Indecent dress styles, occultism and sexual orientation”.
Another contributor steps in: “Indecent dressing is NOT an excuse for rape. Let men zip up and stop giving excuses on why they rape. And the “corrective rape” thing is insane” Then a reply: “Women should dress well and avoid rape. You have two legs but I have three. So I am talking as a man”
Now did you hear that? He is talking as a man. A man with a third leg-a penis, with the right to rape as long as the girl’s dressing permits him to. Women are also objects. Things. Possessions. That is why one can “take” them if they are “accessible”
I started wondering if our activism for women’s rights ends just within our circle of activists or in those conferences and panels where we meet. Do our messages and advocacy efforts reach the people we should be reaching?
You know, I've read reports that classify the worst countries on earth to be a woman, and now I’m having a living experience of what that could actually mean. Leaving my home with the fear that I may be attacked because of my dressing choice is a new reality about my country that I refuse to abide with.
But what still puzzles me, (and may come as a cliché to many) remains the fact that of all the issues plaguing women in my country at this very moment -forced marriage, breast ironing, sex slavery, wife battering, unemployment and poverty, discrimination, widowhood rites, under representation as so many others, the minister appointed to protect and empower these women, totally ignores and sidelines these issues only to invest resources in blaming women for sexual violence and empowering the state to reinforce Violence against Women. Maybe we need to recount the “diaper was too short” story to her again? That way she may understand that rape is really about power and control and less about “what she was wearing”.
But trust me; I also know that as important as the role of formal education is to the intellectual development of a human being, maybe we should start thinking beyond the four walls of a classroom. Because this decision to infringe on the rights of women, and the derogatory comments I saw on my post didn't come from some silly group of illiterate uneducated guys. They were sometimes very, very educated people, opinion leaders, people I know, people I trust, people like you and me.
Are we changing perceptions really?