Mixed Messages: Fear of Empowerment “Imbalance” from Cameroon’s Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family

April 16, 2013

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Recently, I accompanied a group of Dickinson students to a meeting with the North West delegate for the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family, located in the region’s capitol, Bamenda. After working on the grassroots level with women who were paying out of their own pockets to help victims of sexual and domestic violence, I was keen to have this opportunity to ask a government official some questions about women’s issues, or at least gather a sense of the Ministry’s attitudes towards, and approach to, gender equity. I was curious, mostly, to learn about how she interpreted the status of women, women’s empowerment, and if the Ministry’s services were effective solutions for social change.

Throughout the casual conversation, the delegate appeared most enthusiastic when discussing the capacity building initiatives conducted by the Ministry through workshops, seminars and community meetings. The goal of these services is to teach women vocational skills that would encourage them to earn an independent income, as well as to educate women, and the occasion male attendee, about domestic violence. “There must be a change in mentality,” she emphasized, “in order to sensitize [communities] about this issue.” Education and awareness are at the base of this kind of social change.

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The discussion took an interesting turn when I asked the delegate about her interpretation of “an empowered woman.” Understanding that this definition would offer some cultural insight into the image of women in Cameroonian society, it was my way of acknowledging that there is no universal image of “an empowered woman”—it is very culture-specific. In response, the delegate, who I seemed to have caught off-guard with this question, said that an empowered woman is a woman “with skills;” the right to work; and the right to choose how many children she wants to have. This launched us into a whole new discussion about the expected roles of women and men in Cameroonian society. The roles of women, according to the delegate, include: responsibilities to the family, such as fetching water, keeping house, cooking, bearing and raising children, etc. The roles of men are to be the decision-makers and providers of the family’s income. Therefore, “an empowered woman” was a woman who had acquired new and productive skills, but who still conforms to the traditional expectations of women in Cameroonian society.

In Cameroon, many women are economically empowered and active in civil society; however, they lack power and representation in the political sector, which makes way for widespread discrimination. The delegate expressed that her current objective is to penetrate the political sphere and get women more involved in politics. She sees this approach as being essential to women’s empowerment. However, she added that, “an imbalance of [women's] empowerment is a bad thing.” According to her, there needs to be a change in the mainstream image that is linked with empowerment amongst Cameroonian women—an image that supports the idea that acting more like men is what women should aspire to. She sees these skewed interpretations of empowerment stemming from a lack of education. So, in other words, empowering women too quickly would be irresponsible, because women have not yet been educated about what it means to be empowered.

To be candid, that thought had never crossed my mind before this moment. Never had I even contemplated that there was some kind of timeline or formula for empowerment, for the granting of basic freedoms, or for recognizing a fundamental human right. In the end, this meeting left me with more lingering questions and mixed messages about the purpose and vision of this ministry. Is the monitoring and management of empowerment a strategy that will be ultimately effective? I’m not so sure.

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