Five years ago, Clarisse Kimbi made a good living. She and her husband farmed five hectares of land in the Northwest Region of Cameroon. They grew enough food for their family, with extra to sell. Her family was counted among the wealthy in her country.
Now Ms. Kimbi can barely produce enough food to feed her children. Everything changed when her husband died and his family seized her land. She remembers: “Just one day after my husband was buried, my in-laws confiscated the five hectares of land my husband and I had farmed for 27 years.”
Ms. Kimbi has only a tiny parcel of land now. She was forced to take her older children out of school because she could not afford the fees.
Her problem is not an isolated one. Although women produce 80 per cent of Cameroon’s food, they own just two per cent of the land. Traditional practices grant men the exclusive right to inherit land.
Cameroon’s 1974 Land Tenure Ordinance guarantees equal access to land for all citizens. However, in practice, customary laws that discriminate against women’s land rights prevail over statutory laws. This has taken its toll on women’s economic well-being.
Judith Awondo is coordinator of the Cameroon Gender Equality Network. She states: “The inability of women to freely access and control productive resources places them in a weaker position in terms of agricultural productivity and economic growth, food security, family income, and equal participation in governance.”
NGOs and civil society organizations are working together to draft a land rights bill that should improve the situation. The proposed legislation is designed to ensure that the law prevails over discriminatory traditional practices that constrain women’s access to land.
Fon Nsoh is coordinator of a local NGO called Cameroon Movement for the Right to Food. The organization is part of the land rights movement, which is also pushing to simplify the procedures for acquiring land certificates. Mr. Nsoh explains: “Land certificates for matrimonial property should be instituted in the joint names of the husband and wife so as to do away with the patriarchal system of inheritance practiced in most of Cameroon.” Such a change would enable women like Ms. Kimbi to protect their land from confiscation by family members when a spouse dies.
Mr. Nsoh sees positive change on the horizon. He notes that Cameroon President Paul Biya spoke last year about the need to revise the Land Tenure Ordinance. But in the meantime, he is frustrated at the slow pace of progress, which means years more suffering for Cameroonian women.