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CAMEROON: A Woman’s Rights Don’t Die With Her Husband

Elvire
Posted September 22, 2016 from Cameroon
Photo by Guillaume Colin & Pauline Penot on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Elvire stands with widows so they can protect the next generation.

“It is always someone’s fault, usually the wife’s fault.

When I greet Mamissi, she tells me, “Whatever will not kill me will make me stronger.” She says this every time I visit. Today she tells me about the latest milestone in her battle to get back the savings her late husband had in a njangi, which is a small informal association of friends who put funds together to support one another.

Mamissi is trying to put the pieces of her life together after the death of her husband. The past few months have been filled with tears. She sometimes cries to me in despair, “If you have not lived it, you can’t understand!”

This statement took me back several months to the day my husband drove our family car into a heavy, speeding truck. The news that he had died spread rapidly.

For a short time—which felt like eternity—I felt so vulnerable, so lost, so helpless. I pictured the traditions and rituals that awaited my children and me, the hardships I was about to endure. Fortunately for me, my husband had not died. He was in shock, but not dead!

During the brief time I thought I had been widowed, I had the opportunity to mentally review the hurdles and challenges young widows face in my community. I thought about how horrible it is to be emotionally, psychologically, and financially disadvantaged all at once.

My heart is drawn to the thousands of women who, like Mamissi, did not have the luck I had. They face the emotional and psychological trauma of losing their husbands, and then they often lose support from family and society as well. In Cameroon, many believe the death of a young man is always someone’s fault, usually the wife’s fault.

A widow might be forced to drink a poisonous beverage to prove her innocence (It is said that if the widow drinks and dies, then she killed her husband). It’s fashionable now to accuse widows of being witches. Other harmful practices include making a widow walk naked around the village for days or weeks, or obligating her to marry the deceased husband’s relative.

Mamissi, like many widows, is young, poor, and illiterate. At the young age of 25, she lost her husband and faced raising her three children on her own. She says that giving up now would betray the life she and her husband dreamed of for their family. Continuing the journey without him is hard, she tells me, but she is willing to take up the challenge.

There are many Mamissis in Cameroon. Boko Haram terrorist acts have added to the numbers. So have the young people who who are dying in large numbers as they attempt to get to Europe via Libya and then cross the Mediterranean Sea in boats and canoes. The government has not released statistics on the prevalence of widows, but according to organizations that attend to these women—places of worship, public offices, NGOs, community groups—the numbers are shockingly high.

Testimonies from Mamissi and others confirm reports from community organizations that Cameroonian authorities and UN agencies are doing very little to meet the needs of young widows.

Additionally, when women appeal to family members or to companies for help—capital to start an income generating activity, for example—they are often rejected in the name of gender equality. Equality, in this case, is interpreted as being capable of caring for themselves and their children without help.

These are the challenges I see every day in my work with widows. Our organization, the Security, Education and Care Network for Empowerment and Transformation (SECNET-DEV’T), desires to see more comfort, compassion, and support for widows—especially those with little children. Our goal is for women to be listened to, supported, cared for, and empowered to make life beautiful for themselves and for their communities.

Widows have value. They can contribute to a better community life, and their children look to them for education, food, shelter, and dreams for the future. My heart cries out each time I see the opportunities widows are denied.

Many positive decisions have been made by the government in support of widows. International Widows Day has been observed every year since its inception in 2005. A department specifically dedicated to vulnerable women, including widows, was created under the Ministry of Women Affairs. In the new penal code of Cameroon, rituals that widows are subjected to after the death of their husbands that violate their human rights are now punishable by fines and imprisonment. The frameworks are there, but little has been implemented.

Concrete actions and tangible solutions are weakened by societal rules that remain in place. These cultural norms can get in the way of the protection, security, and empowerment these women need. A widow, for example, is dependent on her husband’s family for decisions concerning the future. She can be prevented from inheriting property and the property she acquires herself can be taken away from her.

From experience, I know that when widows have opportunities, they can make a significant difference for themselves, their families, and the environment. These women are potential social change advocates and implementers, as well as advisers for the next generation.

Because widows have lived the nightmare of loss due to various causes, they are more likely to get involved in efforts to eradicate these causes of death.

And, I have seen widows deeply engaged in our violence-free curriculum that teaches children the values of tolerance and mutual acceptance. We hope this curriculum will work to ease terrorism recruitment in the long term.

Our organization aims to help widows with the problems they face now, while also prioritizing advocacy with traditional leaders to help shift cultural norms in their favor.

Today, when I speak with Mamissi about her attempts to recover her husband’s savings, her eyes have already told me that something positive has happened. What a change! Her smile comes from her success in accessing her husband’s savings and starting a livestock business.

Mamissi is completing a training and has found a good place to rent for her business. The financial assistance from SECNET-DEV’T and the savings from her husband’s njangi will help expand the business. Her new skills have helped build her confidence, and she has so many ideas to move forward.

Widows are doing all they can to piece their lives together following devastating loss. I stand by them and am committed to helping give these women reasons to smile.

Comments 21

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JANEKALU
Sep 23, 2016
Sep 23, 2016

Dear Elvire, This story draw me back to memory lane. When my father died I knew the pain my mother went through .Widowhood is the worst thing that can happened to any woman in the eastern part of Nigeria. I know this your organization is going to bring so much relief for women of such nature because it is not really easy for a woman to lose her husband. Keep the good work.

Regards

Jane Kalu

www.gwandgei.com

Elvire
Sep 23, 2016
Sep 23, 2016

Thank you Jane.

It is really difficult, especially when, for fear of being stigmatised in the community, a widow chooses to forego her rights and submit to the humiliating treatment. 

One drop of water at a time, one widow after the other, I trust that we will get there.

East Nigeria look similar to West and North West Cameroon. So I wish to plead: when you have time, would you kindly share one or two  things that were attempted in favour of widows and that worked? It will help us have more ideas.

Thanks again.  

rosemary_ntoipo
Sep 24, 2016
Sep 24, 2016

Dear Elvire,

I read this story and was touched by everything you mentioned. This is proof of how much widows are suffering. Am very proud of you for the great and commendable work that you are doing.

Recently, one widow had a part of her piece of land used as a cemetery. She complained about it to the relevant offices but nothing was done.  She looked for me and I have taken up the issue to make sure she gets help and stop the graves from extending further. We should all work hard to stop to this kind of problems.

Thanks a lot for helping Widows. Keep up the good work you are doing and wish you all the best in your work.

With lots and lots of love,

Rosemary

Elvire
Sep 24, 2016
Sep 24, 2016

Many thanks, Rosemary!

There are high chances that plot was chosen because it belongs to a widow (a vulnerable person who may not have the means to request and obtain justice).

It aches my heart to see that those who should defend her and among the ones making her weaker. But I am glad she is receiving help. Please keep me posted on how the issue develops and ends, especially the kind of people and actions that contributed.

Seeking to learn from your experience,

libudsuroy
Sep 25, 2016
Sep 25, 2016

Dear Elvire,

I admire the way you have woven your story, how you have plaited Mamissi's experience of widowhood and your own almost-widowhood as you hook your readers on your advocacy for the rights of these women bereft of husbands.

I have known through your story that there is an International Day for Widows!

I salute your toughness and compassion!

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Thanks Libudsuroy.

And you know what, I shared with two friends and on Thursday this week, thier church is organising an event for widows, which focusses on their rights and development opportunities. I am glad at the prospect of sitting in the hall and hearing how discussions and training go. 

I look forward to that.

Thanks indeed,

Olanike
Sep 26, 2016
Sep 26, 2016

Dear Elvire,

God bless your golden heart for the amazing work you are advancing to support widows and also promote peace. Your organization's goal of ensuring that "women are listened to, supported, cared for, and empowered to make life beautiful for themselves and for their communities", is laudable. Of course, the kind of support you provide to women like Mamissi ignites hope; just as her determination to forge ahead remains inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing such an amazing story of hope with us. Wishing you the very best in all your endeavors.

Hugs,

(Olanike) Greengirl

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Thanks Ola,

for the encouragement and for the "hug" :-).

I am used to giving and receiving is special. 

Olanike
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

You deserve every encouragement and hug, and much more! Sending you loads of love and very warm hugs. You shine!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Celine
Sep 26, 2016
Sep 26, 2016

Hi Elvire,

Thank you for standing up for the widows in Cameroon.

The story of  Mamissi reminds me of a trip in the past with a friend for a burial of her grand father. In the night of the wake keep, the wife of the deceased, as old as she was, was made to walk through the entire village half naked. She was yelling as she was performing the ritual. I was so shocked to learn that it was part of the tradition of the people and that the grand mama must do it. My heart was filled with hatred for that community. I did not sleep that night. I left the next day. That was in a town called Ibusa in Delta state, Nigeria

I am glad women like you are working hard to change some of these practices. Thank you for this great work. African communities need total change from these obnoxious practices that subject women to untold treatments. 

Regards,

Celine 

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Yes, Celine;

you are absolutely right, such things do happen and they need to stop. And you know the most strange part of our work? when a widow has been asked to do an "alleviated and just symbolic" version of the widowhood rituals but turns the recommendation down because she fears curse. Whose curse then? Why and when?

There is much to do; but we are more than willing.

We will get there. 

Amei
Oct 01, 2016
Oct 01, 2016

Dear Elvire,

Great work! I had to recollect my self after reading your story. Every time I read and hear stories of widows suffering it makes me utterly sad. The injustice vulnerable women have to suffer is incredible. A close friend of mine who was widowed is a fighter. I for sure cannot understand the experience Mamissi goes through. Her cries of “If you have not lived it, you can’t understand!” I understand this statement only due to my own experiences. Mamissi's strength is inspiring. 

Wish you all the best in your work. Amei 

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Thanks Amei.

I hope it is ok by you to share your encouragement with Mamissi.As she builds more strength and confidence, she can help others. 

Amei
Oct 29, 2016
Oct 29, 2016

You are welcome. Thank to you I can across her story. Do tell how happy I am to hear about her work. May God grant her heaps of strength and give her success, and reward you for your efforts, amen.

Natasha L
Oct 03, 2016
Oct 03, 2016

Dear Elvire -

You have written very powerfully and expressively.  The emotions, information, knowledge and story-telling you have shared have shed a strong light on the very very difficult situation for widows in your country.  I have learned a lot from your words and your work.

Stay strong. You make a difference and widows' (and their children's) lives will receive blessings and relief from your vision, determination, wisdom and respect.

Thank you for what you are doing in your country for all the world to know,

Natasha

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Many thanks Natasha.

It is encouraging to know the post is helping increase awareness.

Adanna
Oct 03, 2016
Oct 03, 2016

Dear Elvire,

Kudos for what you are doing for widows in your community. It is really disheartening to see what some widows go through.

Empowering them to be self-reliant is commendable.

Well done Sister!

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Thanks Adanna.

And a tap on the back like yours is so helpful!

Jensine Larsen
Oct 06, 2016
Oct 06, 2016

Elvire, what heartbreaking treatment of these widows who are enormous potential agents of change as you say. I have long been an admirer of your work and passion, I hope to see your movement go global to unite the widows of the world to create a more beautiful future for us all. Keep going, I admire you so greatly

Elvire
Oct 24, 2016
Oct 24, 2016

Thanks Jensine,

For the encouragement and for the idea to build a movement. Connecting with likeminded organisations can increase our impact really. 

I will pursue that.

helen.ng
Dec 11, 2016
Dec 11, 2016

Hello Elvire,

Thank you for sharing your experiences with us. You are so strong for coming so far in your journey. It's so great to hear that even having gone through tough times, you are still courageous enough to fight back against societal rules that seem to entrap women unjustly, and create and organization that fosters a safe environment for women and children. You are a true role model and an inspiration. I look forward to hearing more about your future endeavours.

With kindest regards,

Helen Ng