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Source: Global Press Institute
In Cameroon’s Northwest region, citizens, organizations and local officials are taking part in campaigns and speaking out to encourage women to run for office in the legislative and municipal elections anticipated for this year. Though a date has yet to be set for the elections, International Women’s Day this month stirred up excitement for women’s campaigns.

Sarah Ngalla, 56, is a primary school teacher in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region. The mother of three children, Ngalla says that she was never interested in politics until a regional civil society organization, Community Initiative for Sustainable Development, started its campaign in 2010 for more women to run for office in this year’s elections.

“I was never interested in politics,” she says. “But when I attended one of COMINSUD’s meetings, I was automatically inspired to become a part of the few women whose voices are heard within the political scene.”

"Women are the most affected by community issues. Their voices need to be heard."

 

It is an election year in Cameroon. Ngalla says she is determined to be elected to the local council in her home village. She is running on behalf of the Social Democratic Front, Cameroon’s leading opposition party.

Getting up from her seat in excitement, Ngalla says Community Initiative for Sustainable Development has awakened her vocal talent, a talent she believes can be best put to use in politics. She says she has realized that the best ways for women’s issues to be addressed is for more women to be represented in local councils and in national parliament.

“Getting into politics as a woman is not about fighting to reverse gender roles, but to work hand-in-glove with men so that when decisions are taken, women’s issues and concerns will be taken into consideration,” she says.

Ngalla says enthusiastically that she has already talked to four women’s groups – comprising about 530 women. On the eve of International Women’s Day this month, she traveled to her native village of Ndu to speak to various gatherings of women preparing for the day. She talked to them about the need for women to be represented in politics, although she did not declare her intention of being elected to the Ndu Council.

“I asked them whether we are going to continue to allow the men sit on our heads, take decisions that do not favor us,” Ngalla says. “Are we going to sit and watch the men trample on our rights? Are we going to continue to support only men to take up political positions? We need women to speak for us women when political decisions are taken.”

Ngalla says the women were so happy to hear all that she told them. She says a group of about 150 women expressed their excitement by immediately contributing money for her to traverse the region and talk to more women. In less than 15 minutes, the rural women of Ndu gathered 16,000 francs ($32) and handed it to her.

Ngalla says she divided the money and gave 8,000 francs ($16) back to the group's leaders. She instructed them to use it to buy laundry and bath soap for poor women and widows around the village.

Ngalla has no money to fund her campaign. Instead, she says she will use the power of the spoken word to gain support from her fellow women. She says she is convinced that women are going to support and fund her campaign.

“If you plan well with the women, say things that will move them, they will give you their support,” she says.

Local and international organizations have been collaborating on campaigns in Cameroon’s Northwest region to increase the number of women in elected offices. Women here say this has encouraged them to run in legislative and municipal elections anticipated for this year. While some women distrust politics, other women say this is more of a reason for women to make a positive mark on this sector. Male and female government officials also encourage more women to run for office.

The government has not yet announced the legislative and municipal elections in Cameroon for 2012. But elections are usually held every five years in Cameroon. The last elections took place in 2007.

Women continued to show steady progress in the 2007 elections, though they still hold a fraction of elected offices nationally. The percentage of female councilors rose from 10.7 percent in 1997, to 13.1 percent in 2002, to 15.5 percent in 2007, according to Community Initiative for Sustainable Development. The number of female mayors rose from two in 1997, to 10 in 2002, to 24 in 2007. Out of the 180 seats in the National Assembly, women attained 10 in 1997, 16 in 2002 and 25 in 2007.

In the Northwest region, there are no female mayors. Of the 1,088 councilors in the region, only 77 are women. Of the 20 parliamentarians representing the region in the National Assembly, just one is female.

Community Initiative for Sustainable Development’s goal for the 2012 elections is for 330 women to become councilors, five women to become mayors and five women to become parliamentarians in the Northwest region.

Operating in the Northwest region, the civil society organization has been campaigning for more women to run in this year's elections since 2010. It has been rallying women’s groups and churches, sparked by the support of Bread for the World, a German program that funded the initial campaign.

The campaign is now funded by Voluntary Service Overseas, an international development organization. Hain Michelle, an organization volunteer from Australia who has been working with Community Initiative for Sustainable Development in Cameroon for two years, says the campaign symbol is a yellow ribbon. Throughout the Northwest region, it is common to see women and even men wearing this yellow ribbon pinned to their clothes daily, which stands for more women in council and in parliament.

“If more women are represented in our councils, women’s issues will be represented,” Michelle says. “Women are the most affected by community issues. As a matter of fact, their voices need to be heard.”

Takwe Helvencia, a Community Initiative for Sustainable Development administrator, says that most of the decisions that men make do not reflect women’s interests.

“Decisions only favor men’s interest,” she says. “Women’s voices should be heard in the decision-making process, and their needs will be addressed.”

Michelle says the yellow ribbon campaign aims to fight the government’s claim that it is difficult to find competent women who can compete in political elections. Since the campaign started, almost 500 women have declared their intention to run in this year's elections.

Like Ngalla, Regina Numfor, 49, says that Community Initiative for Sustainable Development’s campaign is also inspiring her to run for office this year. Numfor, a biology teacher in a government secondary school, says she is determined to become a councilor for the Cameroon People’s Party, a party headed by Edith Kahbang Walla, one of the two female candidates who ran in the 2011 presidential elections.

Numfor says she is a born leader. She became interested in politics when she was in university and served as the leader of a political party’s student wing.

Like Ngalla, Numfor says she admires women who generate the courage to express themselves because this is rare. She says that because she possesses this rare quality, it would be best to put it to use in politics. Numfor says it is high time women take credit for their good ideas that currently go unrecognized.

“While in the homes, women provide solutions to their husbands on some pressing issues that they have in their gatherings or in their council,” she says. “When these husbands go back to the meetings, they present these solutions and take the credit. Meanwhile, this was provided by their wives back home.”

Numfor says it’s better for women to be present at the meetings themselves.

“We should go sit on the decision-making tables, be a part of the decision-making process and take our due credits,” she says.

Numfor says women should form a global sisterhood.

“I will like that we, women, should have a forum where we will be able to express ourselves, share our problems, so that together we would sought for lasting solutions that we can use as a starting point,” Numfor says.

But not all women are interested in running for office.

Mary Nji, an entrepreneur in Bamenda, says politics is the last thing that she wants to involve herself in. She would rather dedicate her time to her family.

“I want to enjoy my grandchildren, my husband and my children,” Nji says.

She says the underworld of politics dissuades her from heeding the campaign’s call to women to run for office.

“Politics in the Northwest region involves connecting with the underworld, killing your own brother or sister, slandering, backbiting, blackmailing – all in the name of becoming a mayor, parliamentarian or a councilor,” she says. “I don’t want to die now, so let politics stay.”

But others say this is why women are needed in office – to change politics for the better.

Prudencia Bamu, 60, a member of Christian Women Fellowship, a women’s group in the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon, says that women’s roles in the church provide an example of how they possess qualities that could benefit national politics.

“Imagine a church service where women are absent,” she says. “The service of that day appears very dead and inactive. Women stimulate the church every Sunday, and their presence is relevant in the smooth functioning of the church. This shows that women are the shakers of the nation and their voices should be heard in our councils and in parliament.”

Those already in office agree.

Vivian Epie, 40, is an administrator for the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family’s delegation in the Northwest region. Epie says women should run for office because they prioritize pressing issues.

“When men gather, they will talk about zinc and cement,” she says. “Meanwhile, zinc and cement can wait. But water and food cannot wait. We need women to get in there and talk about water and food that directly concern them.”

She says the ministry is doing its best to encourage women to run for elected positions.

Regina Formunung is the 1st deputy mayor of Bali Nyonga, a subdivision in the Northwest region. She calls on women to vie for political office.

“I am calling on women to come and join me in politics,” she says. “I was once a farmer, but I took up the courage to campaign for a place as mayor in the Bali Nyonga Council.”

She also calls on women to vote for one another in order to enable women to reach higher political offices.

“All I could get was the 1st deputy mayor,” she says. “It was not bad, though this time I am calling on women to stand in for these positions and for women to support women who stand for these positions so that our voices will be strong in the decision-making process.”

Male government officials also encourage women to run.

The regional delegation of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family published an exclusive interview this month with Abakar Ahamat, the governor of Cameroon’s Adamawa region. The governor of the Northwest region at the time of the interview, he said that women could participate in politics at any level – church, party, local council, parliament – and even become the president.

“I believe the sky is the limit for any woman who wants to do politics,” he said. “All she needs to do is set her target and go for it with much determination and courage.”

 

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