Sexual Violence fast getting legalized in Cameroon?

Mallah Tabot
Posted January 16, 2014 from Cameroon

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?

Comments 6

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Precious Nkeih
Jan 16, 2014
Jan 16, 2014

Dear Mallah,

There is so much power in your pen. You have spoken very well. I remember the comments on your facebook post... the post that attracted me to you in the first place. I pray Mme Minister gets to see this and take back her words.

You were so right when you said: "I also blog about the fact that we unfortunately are not valued as that significant half." Yes we are a very significant half and let me add that we are indispensable!

Check your inbox here for a link to some resources.

Keep speaking!

Love, Precious

Emily Garcia
Jan 16, 2014
Jan 16, 2014

Dear Mallah,

Thank you so much for reporting on this important issue. I was shocked to learn about the approach the Cameroonian government is taking to supposedly curb gender based violence. They are not curbing it, they're promoting it!!! Shaming and blaming women for sexual assault is a way to overlook the fact that rape and other forms of violence against women are about power over and control of women. I could not agree with you more! Women do not asked to be raped because of how they dress. And "corrective rape" is the most misogynist act I can imagine.

I did a Google search for more info on the "indecent dressing" campaign in Cameroon and found some but not a lot. Was this campaign just launched this past December? I'm curious to know how the traditional media are reporting on it. I'm hoping your voice against this is not the only one. We need a counter campaign against the "indecent dressing" campaign, I think.

Thank you again for spreading the word in our community.

Best wishes, Emily

Jan 16, 2014
Jan 16, 2014

Dear Mallah, How can I thank you enough for this?I suggest we Cameroonian women on World Pulse should do an outcry against this nonsense.Can we talk more about this?What is your user name on facebook?God bless you! hugs, Leina

Mallah Tabot
Jan 17, 2014
Jan 17, 2014

Thanks so much. And big thank you to Precious for introducing me to this portal. There's a couple of counter campaigns (mostly online through petitions and stuff) launched to challenge this law, but there's still a lot to be done. Leina, thanks so much for connecting with me on WP. I really love that room this platform gives us to amplify voices and hopefully we can make the best of it. I just joined by the way, let me know of any next steps you may have in mind.

Jan 17, 2014
Jan 17, 2014

Dear Mallah

I am deeply saddened to hear of this dangerous situation and outraged by the irresponsible comment made by a "leader". As a woman who lives in a country often named "The rape capital of the world", I understand the anger and frustration. Our statistics tell us that we have about 3 600 rapes a day and less than 1% of the cases are reported.

Here, we have come a long way. Convicted sex offenders often receive stern sentences, in a bid to send a message to others. Our laws regarding male rape have also been changed. The "fight" to be heard took time, but it started with matters being reported and women (and men) making their voices heard.

What have the victims of these heinous crimes done? Have they reported it? Can they report it to higher/national courts as violations of human rights? Are you able to approach law offices to turn the state of things around? Forgive my questions and ignorance. I do not know much of your laws or state control.

It is hard for me to find the words to console you...

Wishing you strength, courage and above all safety.

Jan 17, 2014
Jan 17, 2014

You have Raised an issue that im still finding hard to swallow. HOW on earth does a minister do this. Sometimes education does not educate a person. The case as it is has many effects socially economically and spiritually. I can conclude that women have lost all their rights in Cameroon. When you cant choose what you wear it means you have lost all freedom of expression and you are being oppressed. Also who determines what is indecent dressing, there is a lot of room for the police officers to abuse the law. It is like what policeman in Zimbabwe are reported to do to sexual workers when they demand sex from them, which I classify as rape to free them after they are arrested for loitering. Maybe you can borrow a leaf from the Zimbabwean experience where the governemt was taken to task and street harassment is now a crime i.e commenting a woman on her size or shape e.g mai makabatana- which means woman you are well built sexually. The downside is that many women do not know the law and abused everyday whilst a law to protect them sits shelved. We as the global community will support any actions you take to end the barbarism. I think first step the minister should take back her words. All the best. Remember we may be powerless to stop an injustice but let there never be a time we are silent about it.