DOUALA, CAMEROON – When Marie Bedoungue, 38, first attended a workshop for women’s empowerment, she had no idea the course would lead to the start of her political career.
A delegation of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family in Douala, Cameroon’s economic capital, hosted the workshop. Bedoungue then took advantage of the ministry’s hat-making workshop and was able to start her own business thanks to the course, she says.
The workshops have empowered Bedoungue both emotionally and financially. Before going to the trainings, she was shy and had trouble expressing herself, she says.
Bedoungue was so shy before the trainings that she would not even speak, says Louise-Florence Tamssar, the subdivisional delegate of the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family for the Douala II council area,who taught the women’s empowerment course.
“You could never hear her say, ‘Yes,’ or, ‘No,’” Tamssar says. “But now she can speak, express her opinion clearly. I mean, she’s not the kind of woman on whose feet you can walk.”
So when the delegation announced a new workshop training women how to become politicians and to carry out political campaigns to run for office, Bedoungue took that training too. The training accompanied the ministry’s publication of a new manual educating women about politics to boost their participation.
After Bedoungue took the new political training on the manual, she ran in the September 2013 elections for councilor in the Douala II council area on behalf of the National Alliance for Democracy and Progress political party, she says.
The Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family released a new manual, “A Political Training Manual for Cameroonian Women,” in September 2013 to help more women to participate in politics. The goal is to get more women into elective and decision-making positions in order to better contribute to the nation’s growth, says the minister, Marie Thérèse Abena Ondoua.
The manual debuted on Sept. 4, just three weeks before the parliamentary and municipal elections, which took place on Sept. 30. Despite the close time frame, Tamssar says the manual influenced women’s participation and will have an even greater impact in the near future. The book aims to help Cameroon to advance toward one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, eight objectives that governments around the globe have pledged to achieve by 2015.
“It’s not just because of the elections that the book is coming out,” Tamssar says. “It’s because we have to go into accordance with the Millennium Development Goals, No. 3, which says to empower women to enter into the process of decision-making.”
The ministry wrote the manual in simple language so women from diverse backgrounds can understand it, Tamssar says. It is bilingual, published in French and English, the official languages in Cameroon.
The manual trains women how to conduct a campaign and guides them on appropriate pre- and post-electoral behavior. After the ministry released the book, officials instructed local delegations to organize training sessions to offer in-person, practical lessons to accompany it.
There was so much interest in the book that the ministry ran out of copies, Tamssar says. More copies will be available soon.
The number of women serving as parliamentarians at the National Assembly more than doubled after the September 2013 election. They now constitute 31 percent of the country’s parliament.
The number of women in the National Assembly has been on the rise since 2002, according to a March 2013 report by Cameroon’s National Institute of Statistics. The number of female parliamentarians rose from 10 in 2002 to 25 in 2007. After the 2013 elections, women now occupy 56 seats in parliament.
Advocates for women in politics attribute this rise in female political participation to educational campaigns, mostly by the ministry as well as by nongovernmental organizations, and a new regulation by Elections Cameroon. The official body that organizes elections, coordinates ballots and counts results initiated a regulation in September mandating that political parties include at least one woman on the electoral lists they submitted. It rejected lists that did not feature any women.
If the ministry published the training manual earlier, even more women would have run and would have been elected, Tamssar says.
“If the manual came out like one or two years ago, we wouldn’t have had just 56,” Tamssar says. “We could have had more.”
Bedoungue says the training taught her things about politics she never before had understood.
“It made mention of things I did not even know,” she says. “There are certain words that I did not understand, but which I now understand.”
The training includes definitions of political terms such as relative majority, absolute majority and simple majority, Tamssar says.
“There are some words that we use but do not really know the meaning, and these women are called to elect and to be voted, so they need to know every single thing in the process of elections,” Tamssar says.
Bedoungue campaigned on issues of uncleanliness in her neighborhood, electricity problems and gender issues, such as low enrollment of girls in school and the participation of girls and women in sex work, she says. Though she was not successful in her bid to become councilor, she feels well-equipped to run again.
Bedoungue completed primary school but was not able to attend secondary school. She would not have been able to participate in the political process without the new manual and training program, she says.
“Really, the ministry has made me a real woman,” Bedoungue says excitedly. “By going [to] the ministry, I am what I am today.”
Tamassar says she is proud of Bedoungue.
“She is a clear example of a woman that we took from nowhere and brought her to somewhere, and she’s very grateful for that,” Tamssar says.
Although many were pleased with the publication of the new training manual for women, others say it is only a small step toward the goal of increasing the number of women in politics. Political activists here are asking for new laws to ensure a gender balance in Cameroonian politics.
The manual was a good first step, considering that some women are not well-versed in electoral procedures, says Emma Akem, communication officer for the Women’s Counseling and Information Centre, an advocacy group that works to fight different forms of violence against women.
But a manual alone is not an effective method of increasing the number of female leaders here, Akem says. Illiteracy and low literacy among women mean the manual cannot reach all women.
“So, if you write something in a book, it would serve the majority of the people, but it would not touch everybody,” Akem says. “That’s why other forms of communication should be employed to get the immediate impact on the public.”
Yvonne Muma, vice president of More Women in Politics, a nongovernmental organization that also trains women to get involved in politics, says the ministry published the book too late to influence women’s participation in the 2013 elections.
“To say the manual influenced women’s political participation would be an overstatement because it came way after candidatures had been deposited and when political parties had invested their candidates,” Muma says.
With a record number of women serving in parliament, Akem expects them to unite their efforts to bring positive change for other women in Cameroon, she says.
“I think it is something we have acquired, and we have to consolidate it in order to get more,” she says. “If you want to make it, you have to hold the hand of your sister and pull your sister up.”
Akem is also advocating for new laws that reserve a specific percentage of elective positions for women so they know they are guaranteed a certain number of seats.
“We, as feminists, have an eye on the policy on elections and appointments or anything that empowers the woman as a whole,” Akem says. “Politically, we think that if the government reformed some laws, especially the electoral laws making the field flat for women, something’s going to change as concerns their well-being and economic stability.”
GPJ translated one interview from French.