“Here in our country, as soon as the husband leaves, you are no longer a living being, you no longer have the right to anything.”
When Justine Epse Bel lost her husband, she also lost her land.
As a woman, she had no inheritance rights over the unregistered land she called home. Like her, many other women - unmarried or widowed - in the village of Log-dikit in Cameroon.
Land is crucial in Cameroon, as half the population live in rural areas and are highly dependent on land for their livelihoods and subsistence. Most land, however, is ruled by customary rights, a residue of the country’s colonial past. By those rules, women have little or no voice when it comes to property and land rights.
When a man dies, his wife is often pushed aside as the elder men of the family divide the assets and share them amongst themselves. After a life dedicated to having and raising children, feeding the family and working the land, women are often left with nothing.
“I have been married in this village since 1972, and after the death of my husband I started to have difficulties, especially with land. You work with your husband for a lifetime, but as soon as he is gone it becomes something else: widows suffer a lot.”
Young people share a similar fate. While often being the most active contributors to the survival and wellbeing of their family and community, youth have no rights nor voice when it comes to owning unregistered land. Unsurprisingly, conflicts are common and disputes over land can carry on for years, eroding the community from within.
In 2019, NES leader Ngoken Iris Flore saw the opportunity to change things by organising workshops to educate communities on equitable customary land management.
“I chose the Log-dikit community because of specific cases of land inequality concerning widows and unmarried girls.There are also cases of young people who have returned to the village but are unable to develop because they do not have access to land.”
After several community consultations, in March 2020, NES Cameroon developed a Code of Conduct on Equitable Customary Land Management focusing on youth and women.
The Code is meant to facilitate disputes over land, reinforcing the right of women and young people to own and access land, and mediating in case of conflict.
In order to achieve a change in mentality, it was necessary to make people understand that women and youth are human beings and that justice is the basis of land management. The male participants in the workshops had to understand that those oppressed are members of their own families and that they play a central role in income generation.”
Ndjeyick Pouhe Joseph, notable reporter of the Canton where the community of Log-dikit is located, joined the first workshop organised by Iris and was so impressed by the work that she was doing, that he decided to replicate it to the other communities in the Canton.
Since then, the Code has been distributed to over 50 traditional authorities reaching more than 300 community members.
Having a Code of Conduct has helped to resolve numerous disputes over land, giving women and young people a tool and a voice to ensure that their land rights are respected.
“The difference is that today when we have disputes about land in the Log-dikit village and also in the fifty-one other villages in the Canton, we try to bring people back to the level of equity, to the knowledge that we have.”
Each community in the Canton has two Kings, a traditional one known as the Mbombock, and a more institutional one, who work together to ensure the wellbeing of the whole community.
Their involvement in the process of developing and implementing the Code of Conduct was key and their support to the training activities meant that people in the community, especially women, felt empowered to stand up for their rights.
“The training we were given helps. You need to have a strong heart first and courage to change things. Our leaders gave us advice, they helped us, and that gave us the courage to do the work.”
The process wasn’t without its difficulties, however, and the Kings had to mediate between the old and new generations. Pout Jean Climaque, institutional King of the community, recalls how the most difficult aspect was convincing older members of the community that the way they used to do things couldn't work any longer.
“Women and men, young people, have the right to the land, we will continue to work, we must continue to train for a change in mentality.”
But if change takes time to settle, the implementation of the Code of Conduct undoubtedly marks a turning point.