Coronavirus is the stone that has sharpened the knife of poverty, which is now slicing unforgivingly into the most delicate parts of this society: women in anglophone Cameroon.
This bloody Coronavirus crisis has exposed the delicate underbelly of our society and accentuated the precarity of some of the most vulnerable of our people – women. It has occasioned hurt and harm on a new scale for women in the informal sector of the economy and compromised their ability to provide family support, community upliftment and societal development.
In the war-torn regions of Cameroon, there are bullets and bombs, soldiers and civilians, murder and mayhem. My neighbour Susanna hasn’t been raped or shot yet, but she’s been warned by the men with guns – for selling vegetables on Monday. Susannah sells tomatoes, leeks and celery from metal basins in the muddy fresh food market for a living. Her friend Jonas’ little convenience store was burned down after he opened it one Monday, desperate to feed his family.
In insisting that nobody work on Monday, the militias are enforcing a self-inflicted poverty. In a country where relatively few people have a guaranteed monthly salary, it is an entire population that needs to work every day, otherwise they will starve – motorcycle taxi riders, grilled fish sellers, my beloved Susanna and so many others. Since the war began in 2016, she has lost one sixth of her income because she cannot go to the market on Monday. When you sell parsley for a living, that is a colossal loss. Susannah has become eminently poorer.
The militias also ordered schools closed, in a bewildering choice to under-educate their own people. Susannah’s daughter Johanna just turned eight and sells hard-boiled eggs from a clear plastic bucket she carries on her head. She cannot write her name because the schools were closed a few months before she could begin experiencing the magic of drawing shapes with a pencil. Instead, Johanna walks around town with the bucket of eggs. She goes into bars because a shelled egg with the hot chilli sauce is a great snack with a cold beer – sometimes the men with alcohol inside them speak to her inappropriately.
The Coronavirus pandemic has come to amplify the suffering of women and compound their poverty. While many children around the world have moved into virtual classrooms to carry on learning, accessing vast online resources, Johanna lives in a country where there isn’t regular electricity or clean tap water, or in a home with a computer or an internet connection. Parents without a guaranteed income almost have no choice but to put their children to work if they must eat. Education, and the freedom it brings (freedom from ignorance and poverty), is sacrificed without a second thought, because people need to survive first.
In times of conflict, such as the war in Cameroon, it is typically girls who are hit hardest. In addition to the ubiquitous gender-based violence, the care-giving role assigned to them by society is played up. It manifests itself benignly through being assigned to do house work and petty commercial activity. As life gets harder, however, with Coronavirus and beyond, this will morph into more perverse manifestations like early marriage – here, parents can reduce the number of mouths they need to feed, and ‘redeem the investment’ of having raised their daughter by negotiating a good bride price.
The vulnerability as women in sub-Sahara Africa and the added precarity of life for women in times of war are much more serious hazards than Coronavirus. There are no government grants for people like them, whether in ordinary times or linked to the Coronavirus. In some neighbouring countries, the government has put money back in people’s pockets by sparing them the cost of water and electricity bills for a number of months. Not here, unfortunately.
This is not going to be the last health pandemic, so what will we do to be better prepared for the next one? We should stop the bloody war, let Susanna work every day she can, and fling open the doors of every school, especially for girls like Johanna. Profitable economic activity and education are the levers that lift people out of poverty. Without it, women’s agency to help their family and society is compromised and the poverty cycle perpetuates itself.
Historically it is women who have helped and inspired other women – so we must strengthen the capacities of our women and take bold steps through a new national policy and a consequent shift in public mindset. Let it be the fashionable thing to do, because it is the right thing to do. Cameroon missed the boat 60 years ago when its leaders failed to make bilingualism cool, trendy, fashionable. The war would probably not be on now.
There is certainly a need for new science in response to Covid-19, but we would be remiss if we did not first fix a fundamental imbalance – structural gender inequality – that has exacerbated the effects of the pandemic in some places. Supported by culture, religion and tradition which place women in a position of subservience and subjugation, the second-tier status of women is the greatest fraud in human history. Let us treat our women better instead of marching backwards boldly in development terms while the world moves forward, onward and upward.
Norman Taku is a development consultant, with a focus on human rights education and NGO management. He is also a linguist and translator.