According to the World Bank, the population of women in Cameroon represented over half of the country's total population, a continuation of a trend that has existed since the colonial period (World Bank, 2017). Despite superiority in numbers, women constituted only 47% of the labor force (Stichter & Parpart, 2019). Traditionally, women have not only been more than men, but they have played a critical role within a predominantly agrarian economy. However, since the country's transition to post-colonialism, the role of women has remained on the margins within the modern economic setting. Over the years, the participation of women in the labor force has been pegged on the working status of their spouses, their motherhood, their religion, or a combination of the three. Thus, despite their larger number, the contribution of women to the Cameroonian economy, growth, and well-being has largely remained below its potential.
Women and Work Before Independence
The division of labor by gender disfavored Cameroonian women within the traditional patriarchal agrarian economy (Stichter & Parpart, 2019). Women devoted between six to eight hours each day during the high growing season to agriculture. As a result, rural women supplied close to 90% of the food required for the subsistence of the Cameroonian population (World Bank, 2017). Whereas the Cameroonian woman was the backbone of the nation's economy, the cumulative impact of gender discrimination within the traditional and Western colonial systems served to suppress the position of the woman and give credit to the men. Hence, as the country transitioned to civilization, women became more economically dependent on men. Increasingly, Cameroonian women have occupied an economically precarious position at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.
Between 1946 and 1960, when Cameroon gained its independence, women nationalists presented thousands of petitions that demanded the reshaping of gender roles (Mougoue, 2019). Hence, the struggle for independence occurred on the backdrop of shifting gender roles. As the leaders of the struggle movements would later realize, the role of women in leadership was critical. The contribution of women to the creation of labor space is perhaps more evident in the history of the struggle for independence in the country. Starting in 1957, the women of Cameroon's Western Grassfields took a leading position to ensure that the economic environment was more accommodating of the natives. Hence, from the beginning, women have played a critical role in ensuring a safer work environment for the people of Cameroon.
Women and Work After Independence
After independence, women continued to play the key role of family breadwinners. Women grew staple food crops, while men focused on cash crops. However, women continued to occupy a lower economic status. As of 1992, very few women occupied decision-making positions in government ministries and parastatals (Ondoa, 2018). In the key ministries of agriculture, environment and forestry, livestock, agronomic resources, and veterinary and animal technology, women constituted less than 10% of the workforce (World Bank, 2017). Within the largely agricultural economy, men mainly worked in the cash crop sector, while women remained the sole producers of food for subsistence, and prepared the land for the men. They also harvested and did other work in the fields. Also, whereas men performed their responsibilities in livestock and fishing, women were tasked with the processing and marketing of the fish. They also raised poultry, besides taking charge of all domestic tasks, which included food processing and the collection of water and wood fuel. As a result, women worked up to three times longer than men on an ordinary day.
In pre-colonial Cameroon, women exerted their economic influence within and outside the household (Mimche et al., 2018). As a result, they managed to raise their status and prominence within the economic environment at the time. It is noteworthy that Western colonialism served to introduce new capitalistic institutions and structures that overrode the traditional Cameroon society. As a result, the entire economic fiber of the country was altered, consequently undermining the role of women on leadership and the work environment. The traditional division of labor and the economic functions of women were transformed. Increasingly, men became integrated into the cash economy. Women, on their part, became isolated and left with to head the traditional subsistence farming. However, they were not properly equipped with modern farm machinery to increase their productivity. Hence, despite spending considerably more time on the farms, their contribution was pushed to the margins of the economy.
The exit of colonialism and the acquisition of independence did not serve to better the work environment for Cameroonian women (Mimche et al., 2018). Underdevelopment and neocolonialism became the new realities for the country. As a result, women labor became exploited in all aspects of the Cameroonian capitalist system. Women have continued to perform their domestic tasks with less support that would improve their economic status. The majority of the Cameroonian women remained subsistence farmers. Women who chose self-employment ended up in petty trade, dressmaking, domestic service, and prostitution. The nature of work done by women within the capitalist system could not allow them to acquire substantial wealth. Women's lack of access to critical resources like modern technology and bank loans has served to keep them at the bottom of the economic structure.
Women and Work in the 2000s
While Cameroon experienced an increase in light manufacturing in the 1990s and early 200s, it remained a predominantly agricultural economy (Nana-Fabu, 2016). Thus, close to 80% of the Cameroonian population remained trapped in agriculture (Mimche et al., 2018). The commercial aspect of agriculture remained dominated by men while close to 60% of the subsistence farmers were women. The majority of the country's cash crop fields were owned by the government or European farmers. As a result of the imbalance, women continued to be exploited as laborers who earned low wages. The rural workforce was predominantly female as more young men fled to the urban areas to seek wage-earning employment. Women increasingly persevered exploitative workloads. Further, since the men did not earn enough from their jobs in town, the dependency ratio in the rural areas remained high, and so women had to work even harder.
Between 2002 and 2005, the percentage of women aged between 15 and 49 years employed in the various sectors of the economy remained low (Nana-Fabu, 2016). For instance, only 32.2% of the domestic servants in urban areas were women, while the percentage of those employed in rural areas was 21.8% (World Bank, 2017). In agriculture, women constituted 10.5% of urban employees and 55.6% of rural employees. Only 20.4% of urban school teachers were women, while 7.6% of the rural school teachers were female. In trade and commerce, women constituted 16.5% of urban employees and 9.3% of rural employees (Nana-Fabu, 2016). Since women remained stuck in rural agriculture, and without the privilege of credit, they remained unable to transition to commercial agriculture. However, the role of advocacy groups played a leading role in championing the position of women in the work environment. Therefore, there was an improvement in the dissemination of information and the empowerment of women to be more proactive in the workplace environment.
Women and Work in the 2010s
The role of Cameroonian women in the work environment has taken an upward trend with the increased access to information that has come with the growth of technology in the country. The role of women in strategic areas of the economy such as healthcare has continued to improve in the past decade. As of 2010, Cameroon had women contributing to at least 23% of the number of scientists for the country (Nana-Fabu, 2016). From 2018, the percentage of women elected to the country's senate was 26% while women constituted 31.3% of the members of the national assembly (Stichter & Parpart, 2019). Overall, women constituted 29.3% of Cameroon's legislators. The representation of women in elective and appointive government positions remains disappointingly below the level of representation of the country's demographics, the state of the economy has not been kind. According to the World Bank (2017), Cameroon's economy is not attractive to the private sector.
In Cameroon, the bulk of work done by women takes place in the non-market activities that constitute the informal and home sectors (Nana-Fabu, 2016). Whereas the environment for women participation in the Cameroonian workplace has increased over the years, the economy remains too constricted to allow women to play a prominent role. The country's colonial capitalist setup uplifted men over women in the civil service, a trend that continues to date. Further, the fact that the private sector remains thin and focused on agriculture continues to push women to the periphery despite their important role in the economy.
CHE, G. N., & Sundjo, F. (2018). Determinants of female labor force participation in Cameroon. International Journal of Applied Economics, Finance, and Accounting, 3(2), 88-103. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330680984_Determinants_of_Female_Labour_Force_Participation_in_Cameroon
Mimche, H., Yonta, A. P., & Tohnain, N. L. (2018). Changes in Female Roles in Cameroon. Post-Colonial Cameroon: Politics, Economy, and Society, 177.
Mougoue, J. B. T. (2019). Gender, Separatist Politics, and Embodied Nationalism in Cameroon. University of Michigan Press.
Nana-Fabu, S. (2016). An analysis of the economic status of women in Cameroon. Journal of International Women's Studies, 8(1), 148-162. https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1355&context=jiws
Ondoa, H. A. (2018). Education and labor supply inequality in the informal sector: the case of Cameroon. Labor History, 59(2), 202-214. https://doi.org/10.1080/0023656X.2018.1422419
Stichter, S. B., & Parpart, J. (2019). Patriarchy and class: African women in the home and the workforce. Routledge.
World Bank. (2017). Documents.worldbank.org. Retrieved 14 March 2020, from http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/480711490925662402/pdf/CPF-CM-Board-vf-February-28-03062017.pdf.
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