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Cameroon: women's land rights remain in limbo

May 01, 2023
topic:Women's rights
tags:#Cameroon, #women's rights, #land rights, #gender equality, #Sustainable Agriculture
by:Yukfu Sylvie Bantar
Women's ownership of land in the country remains taboo. But environmentalists point out that the fight won't end by eliminating misogynistic customary laws.

Elizabeth Njisoh and Confidence Njila are two farmers from Northwestern Cameroon. Their stories portray the nation’s land ownership problem, which greatly disfavours women. 

"Since my husband died, all the assets, including the lands I was farming on to feed my children, were seized," Njisoh, who lives in Ndu, a rural suburb in Donga Mantung Division of Cameroon's North West region, told FairPlanet. "The reason advanced, Njisoh still recalls, was "that I am a woman and I cannot own land."

Njila, who lives and farms in the same area, shares a similarly traumatic experience. 

"After investing in a plot of land assigned to me by my husband […] such as raising livestock, I was told to quit so he could carry out some construction work," she said. "This greatly affected my socio– economic well-being." 

Agricultural land helps alleviate poverty and drive development of communities in Cameroon. A 2020 Research revealed that the country’s agricultural land increased from 80,280sq in 1971 to 97,500sq in 2020. The majority of this land, however, is owned by men. Women in Cameroon constitute about 70 percent of the population, but only 1 percent of them own land. 

Meanwhile, some men allocate meagre plots of land to women in their family, who then carry out farming and livestock breeding. But this applies only to a privileged few who live in urban centres and are financially secure enough to purchase and own land.

Whereas Cameroonian law grants men and women equal access to land ownership, unofficial yet prevalent customary laws greatly restrict women’s right to own land. 

"The customary laws and the typical patriarchal system in Cameroon have also limited women's access to land ownership, as most women are considered as property just like [the] land itself," Barrister Nkengla Walters of Loyalty Law Firm told FairPlanet. 

He added, "This particular procedure is governed by decree N◦ 76/165 of 27 April, 1976 to establish the conditions for obtaining land certificates, amended and supplemented by decree 2005/ 481 / 14 of December 2008. 

"When it comes to the other laws like law N◦1976/ 27 April, 1976 to establish the terms and conditions of the management of the private property, if the land is not obtained by direct registration where you have to proof that you obtained that land before 1974 or certificate of occupancy, the only option will be to apply through a grant. This makes access to land rights for women difficult."

Martha Fai, Another female farmer from northeastern Cameroon, said that the fact that women do not own land limits their interest in effective land management. This, she added, gives room for poor agriculture and environmental practices. 

"I was forced to start applying inorganic fertilisers in the new piece of land which I considered not fertile. This has affected my crops and I have had very poor yields," Fai told FairPlanet.

A paradigm shift 

Fon Azefor III, a traditional ruler from Nkwen - a village in Cameroon's North West region, told FairPlanet that thanks to modernisation, awareness-building and sensitisation on women’s rights to land ownership, mindsets are beginning to change. 

Most of those traditional practices are fading away, he said, adding that women are now being recognised as better land stewards, with many families and communities now entrusting land ownership in their hands. 

"Before now, women were not given access to land and were regarded as men’s property, limiting them access to land ownership and exploitation," Fon Azefor III, "but with modernity, with our national laws and international laws, we have been looking at it very critically to give some sort of empowerment to the women who in fact cultivate the land."

He added that while more than half of the women in his community cultivate the land, they have no access to ownership. He stressed, however, that his village’s institutions and customs have evolved, and that he is "seeing to it that women are given access to land ownership."

Like Fon Azefor, Fula Aaro, his peer from Aba village in the same region, said that he has been encouraging his subjects to pass down land ownership to girls, not only their male heirs. 

"This African traditional law is natural and hereditary, but does not deprive women from purchasing land and does not stop the parents from giving their property to their female children," Fon Fula told FairPlanet. 

The International Federation of Female Lawyers (FIDA) in Cameroon has also been carrying out efforts to help women who experience difficulty owning land by offering legal services. Barrister Mbuya Gladys, who heads the organisation in Cameroon, said that FIDA represents indigenous women and helps them assert their rights whenever such rights are tampered with. 

"In terms of land rights, FIDA sensitises women on their right to own land and to dispose of the same," Mbuya told FairPlanet.

"We equally sensitise them on their rights to have the land registered in their names. We also represent women before the judiciary to make sure they are not disinherited. And during divorce proceedings, we make sure they get an equal share of property, be it land or any other."

Education around land preservation is key

Rural women are said to be the main users of land in the Bamenda Highlands of Cameroon. Their main occupation and source of livelihood revolve around cultivating crops to sell or feeding their households.  

"Women have a lot of potential to develop land, especially in the agricultural sector where these groups of people are front liners," Kari Jackson, executive director of Sustainable Run for Development, told FairPlanet. "Though they carry out subsistence agriculture, it seems to be [... their] only way out of poverty, and therefore land should belong to them and managed by them."

Some environmental advocates in Cameroon argue that women's advocacy for land rights should be accompanied by the interest to preserve the land for posterity, and accuse women of engaging in poor agricultural practices like bushfires, the indiscriminate felling of trees and the use of inorganic fertilisers on their farms. This degrades the land and leads to poor crop yields, they claim. 

"In order to sustain this land, women should engage in the use of organic manure [fertilisers], in order to maintain the texture and fertility of the land," said Dr Ebai Maurice Tambe, an environmentalist. "Women should practise agroforestry by planting fruit trees and food crops on the same land."

Need for legal redress 

Some customs in Cameroon falsely claim that women cannot own and invest in land - a legal fallacy punishable by the country's 2016 penal code. Defaulters risk facing imprisonment and fines for depriving women of their right to own land.

Civil society actors have also stressed that the country’s land ownership laws exist mostly on paper, and that women are still deprived of their rights to land ownership and therefore denied economic empowerment. 

Fon Azefor III of Nkwen believes it is high time that these laws are reinforced so defaulters can be "punished accordingly."

"In my community, I have issued an order for those customary laws depriving women from owning land to be revoked," he said.

Barrister Nkengla agrees, and says the time has come for women "to assert their rights and invoke the law in their favour."

"If a woman applies for land following the laws, there is no reason why she should not occupy the land," he said. "But if for any reason the woman is denied access, the constitution prohibits that, and the woman can sue and have her rights vindicated before the court of law."

Image by Kreative Krame.

Article written by:
Yukfu Sylvie Bantar
Embed from Getty Images
“Since my husband died, all the assets, including the lands I was farming on to feed my children, were seized."
Embed from Getty Images
Some men allocate small plots of land to women in their family where they carry out farming and livestock breeding.
Embed from Getty Images
Rural women are said to be the main users of land in the Bamenda Highlands of Cameroon.
\'After investing in a plot of land assigned to me by my husband […] such as raising livestock, I was told to quit so he could carry out some construction work. This greatly affected my socio– economic well-being.\' 
© Njingla Confidence
"After investing in a plot of land assigned to me by my husband […] such as raising livestock, I was told to quit so he could carry out some construction work. This greatly affected my socio– economic well-being."