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Shrinking Civic Space in Cameroon: what impact on Women’s Human Rights?

Abstract The present socio-political land scape of Cameroon clearly epitomizes the “Shrinking Civic Space Phenomenon” as ongoing crises from the Boko Haram violent extremism; Anglophone separatism, the COVID-19 global health pandemic and a worsening humanitarian situation have led to restrictive measures curtailing fundamental human rights with grievous impacts on women. This paper spotlights how the phenomenon of shrinking civic space has curtailed the freedom of expression, movement and assembly of Cameroon women in the shadow of armed conflicts and COVID-19. This has led to the blunting, condoning and the impunity of abuses and violations against women and children, impeded the implementation of women’s human rights instruments and compounded the vulnerabilities and discriminations against this socially vulnerable groups. Using policy and legislation information, analysis, evaluation and personal experiences, we found that the shrinking space phenomenon exposes citizens particularly women and girls to abhorrent socio-political, economic and cultural human rights violations which disproportionately impact their welbeing and development. We conclude that, the confusing provision of article 45 of the Cameroon constitution which empowers the president to negotiate and ratify treaties and international agreements and by so doing places such instruments over conflicting national laws even if no national laws to such effect exist pays lip services to human rights concerns in Cameroon as it is relied on to make legal sham concessions on such crucial issues. Introduction The present socio-political land scape of Cameroon clearly epitomizes the “Shrinking Civic Space Phenomenon” (1). Ongoing crises from the Boko Haram violent extremism; Anglophone separatism and the COVID-19 global health pandemic have led to a worsening humanitarian situation which disproportionately affects Cameroonians especially women and girls. According to the CIVICUS 2016 State of the Civil Society Report (2), over 100 countries have faced serious restrictions and threats to civic freedoms in 2015, in the form of new legislation, legal or administrative action, activists’ persecution and others. Cameroon government’s strategic measures to combat armed conflicts within the country, fight against the propagation of the corona virus coupled with measures imposed on citizens by armed militias have led to both formal and informal reducing of the universally recognized space for individuals and collectivities to meaningfully, speak out, organise, and participate in public live through associations, peaceful assemblies and freedom of expression under the protection of the state, leading to gross human rights abuses and violations against women and children, particularly the girl child. Indicators of shrinking civic space in Cameroon include but not limited to limitations to the freedom of speech, press and assembly; legislation that limits the activities or financing of civil society organizations (CSOs) or that classify their staff as terrorists or foreign agents, the detention of civic actors without due process, slander intimidation, summary execution and unaccounted deaths of civil actors. This paper spotlights how the phenomenon of shrinking civic space has curtailed the freedom of expression, movement and assembly of Cameroon women in the shadow of armed conflicts and COVID-19. This has led to the blunting, condoning and impunity of abuses and violations against women and children, impeded the implementation of women’s human rights instruments and compounded the vulnerabilities and discriminations against this socially vulnerable group. We describe the situation, using policy and legislation information, analysis and evolution to share our experiences of the socio-political, economic and cultural impacts of the phenomenon on women particularly. This is done with the hope to bring to the fore the prevailing human rights situation of women in Cameroon in the heat of ongoing crises and to widen our network for partnership and collaboration within the continent and beyond on issues of women’s rights. Some activities of Cameroon women’s Peace Movement (CAWOPEM) Cameroonian women in their multitude and miscellany who constitute about 52% of the country’s population have been at the forefront of peace building, fight against the corona virus and development activities at the community, national and international arena in formal and informal capacities (3). At the national level, Women have organised lamentations, organised press conferences and presented position papers on the prevailing situation in the country and how it disproportionately affects women, carried out grassroot peace building activities, educating women on their role in peace building, providing humanitarian assistances to the vulnerable poor masses. During the National Major Dialogue in 2019, Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement (CAWOPEM) particularly submitted a statement to the Prime Minister and strategies on ceasefire, continuation of dialogue and dialogue code of conduct. We proposed a dialogue continuation and ceasefire strategy, to reflect the age, gender disaggregation, ethnicity, geographical origin, education and other socio-cultural diversities that make up the realities of Cameroon. We have organised candle light vigils in memory of the victims of prevailing armed conflicts, to mobilize women’s voice for the Promotion of peace in Cameroon, remember all those who lost their lives as a result of Armed Conflicts in Cameroon, decry the target killings of civilians particularly women and children, gross human rights atrocities including the rape, maiming, using of women and children as kamikazes and others. We have held many strategic meetings to map out our interventions, network with technical partners, evaluated the implementation of women related instruments and commitments by Cameroon (Beijing +25, UNSCR 1325, year of domestication of the Maputo Protocol and others). We have organised, radio, television and social media campaigns on silencing the guns, used the 16 days activism against gender based violence and the commemoration of the international human rights day to mobilize and sensitize against rape specially in the school milieu in accordance with the “Orange the World ,Generation Equality Against Rape” theme. We have organised gender consultative meetings with technical partners to identify the international conventions and protocols on gender enhancement applicable in Cameroon, assess the implementation of the specific instruments on women’s political, legal and economic rights, provisions, implementation, lapses and perspectives, enhanced the capacity of gender stakeholders on the political, legal and economic empowerment of the Cameroonian woman, and examined the national gender policy and suggested recommendations to make it more impactful. Cameroon women have equally been at the center of the fight against the COVID 19 global health pandemic, providing lifesaving information and resources to the vulnerable masses. Rural, urban, educated, uneducated, cultural groups, faith base, organisations, civil society, women from all the nooks and crannies of the country have relentlessly participated in mobilizing and educating grassroot and vulnerable people, the bike riders, Internally Displace Persons (IDPs), refugees, market vendors and others on the corona virus. These women use simulation sessions, local languages, pidgin, the social media outlets, folklore, English and French where appropriate to communicate. They have also embarked on training underprivileged Cameroonians who cannot easily afford the hydroalcoholic hand sanitizers on how to produce homemade ones. Even hand washing which sounds like a mundane and most affordable measure to fight the COVID-19 virus remains a luxury for some Cameroon households as, “ensuring the availability and sustainable water and sanitation management for all” recommendation to achieve SDG 6 is still a tussle for many. The hand washing itself according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) means “Regularly and thoroughly clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water”. The hand washing technic itself needs directions and no other person has been available to teach the ordinary Cameroonians how to effectively wash their hands but women. Many Cameroon households, particularly grassroot households and those who live in the slums of the metropolises still trek over long distances to fetch water from streams and spring of very doubtful sources and quality where hazardous chemicals and material are dumped for their household consumption and cleaning. Such water and sanitation deficiencies intersect with other difficulties faced by these vulnerable families who live in slums and expose them to water borne and other related illnesses. Hence, women have equally made it their duty to educate such families on how and with what to disinfect such water before use. They provide clean water at strategic places like the markets, road junctions, and others, to encourage more people to frequently wash their hands. Although the W.H.O recommended physical and social distancing of at least one meter sounded easy, “Human Beings are Social Animals” and are naturally oriented towards one another in solidarity. Hence, asking people to distance themselves for whatever gain may at first sight not be welcomed, thus, the need to sensitize them on the imperative need for such separation to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Women have been at the forefront providing the masses with these lifesaving pieces of information, measuring and drawing how far the one-meter distancing should be, and explaining and translating technical terms like ‘droplets’ using lingua franca and local languages. Women have embarked on the recommended production of homemade masks by W.HO. and governments to meet the demands of ordinary populations. These face masks produced with their limited financial resources are either sold at prices differing all market prices to enable the poor masses to procure or basically giving them out freely and teaching them how to wear them and wash them for reuse. These early mitigation efforts by women commenced just immediately after the first case was announced in Cameroon have made a difference and retarded the spread of the virus in a country of about 25.000.000 inhabitants but with less than 100 ventilators and wanting health facilities. We have organised webinars on the UN 75 dialogue, with the UNPFA country representative, on the joint impact of COVID-19 and armed conflicts on women, to celebrate the Day of the African Woman” which coincided with the year of the domestication of The Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (The Maputo Protocol). We equally organised a webinar on the implication of armed conflicts on women and the need for a ceasefire in Cameroon with students of the Center for Human Rights of the University of Pretoria among many other participations. On the international arena, CAWOPEM has presented the human rights situation of women in prevailing crises at the 65th Ordinary Session of the African Commission on Human and Peoples Rights and 39th African Human Rights Book Fair Banjul-The Gambia and a side event organised for this purpose; and at a side-event during the 43rd Session of the Human Rights Council titled: celebrating civic space. CAWOPEM was represented at the Civil Society Organizations Engagement Framework in implementing (WPS ) Women Peace and Security agenda’ of the African Union in Nairobi, Kenya aimed at developing a road map for CSO s engagement on advancing the Women Peace and Security agenda through the African Union existing Mechanisms, reviewing gaps, gains and challenges within the Livingstone Formula in order to develop criteria towards the implementation of WPS agenda across the continent. CAWOPEM participated at the 8th high level dialogue held in Kampala from the 4th to the 6th of December 2019 convened by the African Governance Architectures. To provide a platform for reflection on the 2019 AU theme of the year of Refugees Returnees and IDPs. The convening raised issues of forced displacement in Africa, Facilitated the exchange of experiences and comparable lessons among AU members and stakeholders on the durable solutions to forced displacement and discussion on the shared responsibilities and the Role of the UN humanitarian and development partners as well as African actors to support AU member states towards the fulfillment assistance and protection of refugees Returnees and IDPs. Some shrinking civic space measures in Cameroon shrinking civic space measures taken by Cameroon government have grievously affected the lives of women and girls. They are characterized by limitations to the freedom of speech, press and assembly; legislation that limits the activities or financing of civil society organizations (CSOs) or that classify their staff as terrorists or foreign agents, the detention of civic actors without due process, slander intimidation, summary execution, disappearances, uncounted deaths of civil actors and include: The Cameroon electoral code (4): The elections law in Cameroon vaguely provides in Section 151(3) that “Each list shall take into consideration the various sociological components of the constituency concerned. It shall also take into consideration gender aspects” this provision undermines both the universal 30% and the African Union 50% quota of women’s representation in decision making positions both elected and appointed. Given the slow speed by which the number of women are growing in politics in Cameroon, a quota system to ensure that women constitute at least a critical minority of 30% (5), or true gender balance of 50:50. Such quotas for women entail that women must constitute a certain number or percentage of a candidate list, a parliamentary assembly or a government, thereby placing the burden of recruitment on those who control the recruitment process and not on individual women. Quota systems when expressly inserted in legislation also provide civil society organisations with a legal basis to clamour for their implementation without being exposed to threats, slander, intimidation arrest and detention. The absence of this legal framework for women’s effective political representation has led to underrepresentation of women in decision making in Cameroon with presently only 11 ministerial posts out of about 63; 31 female mayors out of 306; 26 senators out of 100; no woman contestant in the presidential runup of October 2018; no city mayor among the 14 pioneer city mayors elected in October 2019. The law on terrorism (6): The vague definition of terrorism, disproportionate penalties and provision for the exclusive trial of purported terrorist acts even by civilians in military courts have a disastrous impact on freedom of information as it is implemented in a heavy-handed manner. Internet shutdown and criminalization of social media communication has been some examples of such curtailment on information. This law was drafted ignoring the recommendations of many international conventions that make it possible to reconcile combatting terrorism with respect for freedoms (7). It expresses a series of intentions and means, without ever relating them to a clear definition of terrorism. This crudely formulated law applies disproportionate penalties that stifle freedom of the press, assembly, manifestation and others. Many civil society activists and human rights defenders have been whisked to jail through the military tribunal by virtue of this law. Reporting atrocities committed in war zones especially on women and children have been grievously limited by this law and it insistence on revealing the source of information or accused of collaborating with terrorists. This is the case with journalists, for whom “defending terrorism” in spoken or written word is punishable by 15 to 20 years in prison and/or a fine of 25 million to 50 million CFA francs (28,000 to 76,000 euros). Also, peaceful protest by marginalized anglophone lawyers and teachers has been confused with boko haram violent extremism in the Far north region and punished same. Declaration of war: while at the Paris Summit in May 2014, the president of Cameroon declared war on boko haram terrorists in the far north region. In like manner, President Paul Biya in December 2017, declared war on Lawyers and Teachers in the North West and South West Regions of Cameroon calling them terrorists. These professional syndicates staged a peaceful protest decrying inter alia, the overwhelming and systematic marginalization, oppression and suppression of Anglophone Cameroonians leading to the gradual erosion of their Anglophone Identity. These wars were declared without safeguards provided in the Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, of 1949 (8), and the Additional Protocols of 1977 which provide that women shall especially be protected against any attack on their honour, in particular against humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution or any form of indecent assault; Nor the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights (9), which states that “violations of the human rights of women in situations of armed conflict are violations of the fundamental principles of international human rights and humanitarian law. Also, the protection pillar of the UNSCR 1325 (10) on women, peace and security as well as the critical area “E” of the Beijing Platform for action (11) on “women and armed conflicts” and other known instruments and commitment on the protection of women in times of conflicts were not activated. This protection gap has led to the massive violation of human rights of the civilian population, especially women, children, the elderly and the disabled. systematic rape of women, sexual slavery and forced pregnancy, mass exodus of refugees and displaced persons, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment, summary and arbitrary executions, disappearances, arbitrary detentions, hunger and other denials of economic, social and cultural rights, discrimination against women and lack of the rule of law and other abhorrent practices. Some examples of denials of economic, social and cultural rights of the grass field people in Cameroon include the ban on the use of machetes (12) and Dane guns. For a people who practice peasant farming as the livelihood activity of about 90% of the population, forbidding the use of machetes or requiring stringent procedures to purchase a machete is exposing the population particularly women who are majority and champion farming to hunger and feminization of poverty. The Maputo protocol (13): By ratifying the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa with reservations regarding homosexuality, abortion (except therapeutic abortion) and prostitution, government gravely impedes the freedom of choice regarding the free development and sexual and reproductive rights of women and children. Also, there is still a huge gap between commitments pursuant to the ratification of the texts and the reality of women’s lives in Cameroon due to the lack of real political will and the persistence of several other obstacles like patriarchy. Cameron for instance has upgraded marital age for both boys and girls in the 2016 penal code (14) but not harmonized the age in other instruments like the civil code and the civil status registration ordinance thereby limiting the sphere for real advocacy and activism for the marital age of the girl child. This legal gap has led inter alia to child marriage with impunity. The absence of a specific law on violence against women in Cameroon, a family code and the confusing provision of article 45 of the Cameroon constitution (15) which empowers the president to negotiate and ratify treaties and international agreements and by so doing places such instruments over conflicting national laws even if no national laws to such effect exist. Cameroon has used this constitutional provision to pay lip services and make sham concessions to many international treaties and commitment with grave implications on the rights of women. National Committee on Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (NCDDR) (16): On November 30, 2018, Cameroon’s President signed a decree to create a national committee to disarm, demobilize and reintegrate (DDR) secessionists in the English-speaking regions and former Boko Haram militants in the Far North. The DDR fails to list the Ministries of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, and Justice as key ministries to implement the decision. The decision equally relegates Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) to partners if needed be and not active participants to effectively monitor and evaluate the effective implementation of the process considering the different needs of female and male ex- combatants. It is alleged that some 130 inmates of the DDR Centers have escaped in the bushes due to poor facilities and absence of basic needs. The needs of female combatants have not been assessed nor their numbers known. No gender disaggregation data has been produced notwithstanding the fact that these women whether forcefully recruited or willingly have differential needs from men which must be factored in the processes. Still in line with Cameroon government’s strategic responses to armed insurgency, a first National Action Plan for the implementation of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and accompanying resolutions was developed in 2017 for the period of 2018-2020 (17). The procedure for the development of this document was fettered by the lack of the inclusion of independent civil society actors as recommended by the resolution in favour of government organised NGOs (GONGOs). This lack of results-oriented document has failed to pave a way for the implementation of the four pillars of the resolution in the heat of the crises to protect and assist women in Cameroon. To this effect, policies in response to armed insurgency and fight against corona virus have been devised without a gender perspective. These policies include: Nation Commission for the Promotion of Bilingualism and Multiculturalism, Emergency humanitarian assistance plan, Major National Dialogue (MND), The Declaration of Safe Schools, Declaration of Economic Disaster Areas and the ongoing Presidential Plan for Reconstruction and Development (PPRD) to reduce the effects of the crisis on populations of the North-West (NW) and South-West (SW) following the Grand National Dialogue. Administrative restrictions (18): The administration in the restive regions has resorted to extended, at times unconstitutional restrictive orders restraining movement of people and goods. These administrative orders alongside extended ghost towns from the non-state armed groups in the Northwest and Southwest regions have caused untold hardship to inhabitants including inability of women in child labour to access health facilities during childbirth. Many women have died in the course of childbirth and many patients of curable diseases because of these restrictions. Shrinking civic space measures in the shadow of COVID-19 (19): Cameroon’s civic space during COVID-19 is epitomized principally by the controversial responses from government and arms groups to the UNSG call for national solidarity and ceasefire to combat the global health pandemic. Government’s denial to heed to the UNSG call has led to continuous hostility with attacks on health infrastructures and killings of humanitarian workers. The pandemic which has both overshadowed and exacerbated ongoing armed conflicts in the country and worsening humanitarian situation has seen government reinforce civic space concerns by refusing to accept donated COVID-19 equipment and blocking of fundraising initiatives from the opposition party. Threats to sanction or dismissal of village heads for turning down ridiculous corona virus assistance from the president of the republic. volunteers distributing free masks to populations in need have been arrested and detained, government’s ‘spur-of-the moment’ preventive measures have made with resistance from the population leading to defense and security forces brutality and extreme violence. Conclusion: Discernable form the forgoing, we can conclude that fundamental human rights in Cameroon have faced serious curtailment with women and children particularly the girl child bearing the brunt. Extensive, controversial and at times illegal restrictive measures by government to contain ongoing crises from boko haram violent extremist, anglophone separatists, COVID-19 and worsening humanitarian conditions have led to downsides in milestones achieved in the domain of human rights of women. These backlashes have affected all instruments and commitments that protect fundamental human rights particularly those of women and other socially vulnerable groups globally, regionally and national. They have been manifested in the killing and desecration of women, reinforcement of gender-based violence and erosion of gender roles, growing insecurity, food insecurity, spike in internal displacement and refugees, mental and physical health concerns and others. Useful resources (1) Briefing on Shrinking Space for Civil Society in Russia https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/02/24/briefing-shrinking-space-civil-society-russia (accessed May 2020) (2) CIVICUS, “State of Civil Society Reports 2016,” June 2016, https://www.civicus.org/index.php/socs2016(accessed May 2020). (3) Cameroon Women’s Peace Movement (CAWOPEM), “General Report 2019” January 2020 (4) Law No. 2012/001 of 19 April 2012 relating to the Electoral Code in Cameroon (5) International IDEA, Gender Quotas https//www.idea.int > data > quotas (6) Law No 2014/028 of 23 December 2014 on the suppression of acts of terrorism (7) Reporters without Borders, “Disproportionate penalties for media in Cameroon’s anti-terrorism law 2016” December 2016, https//www.rsf.org > node (8) Geneva Convention relating to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War (Fourth Geneva Convention), of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977 (9) Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action, adopted by the World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna on 25 June 1993 (10) United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000) on Women, Peace and Security (11) Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action adopted at the 16th plenary meeting, on 15 September 1995 (12) The most recent is a decision by the interior minister banning the purchase of machetes, iron rods in north and south west regions, except authorised (13) L, Asuagbor, 2016. Status of Implementation of the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Report presented at the 60th meeting -commission on the status of women in New York March 2016 (14) law No. 2016/007 of July 12, 2016, relating to the penal code (15) Law No. 96-6 of 18 January 1996 to amend the Constitution of June 2, 1972 (16) Decree N° 2018/719 of 30 November 2018 to establish the National Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Committee (17) republic of Cameroon: national action plan for the 1325 resolution and companion resolutions of the united nations security council on women, peace and security (2016-2020), august 2017 (18) We have literally lost count of the number of extensive and at times without legal bases of administrative orders restricting fundamental human rights in the unruly north and south west regions of Cameroon (19) special statement by the prime minister, head of government of Cameroon: “government response strategy to the coronavirus pandemic (covid-19)” March 2020 (20) May, C, 2020. Mainstreaming civic space in State interventions at the UN Human Rights Council Paper presented ahead of the Council’s 44th session