Cameroon Seeks Greater Female Political Participation

Political parties in Cameroon have set an ambitious goal ahead of this year's polls � to put women in at least 30 percent of elected offices.

An all-female orchestra plays as 300 women selected from associations around Cameroon campaign in markets, universities and popular spots in the capital, asking women to register to vote.

Twenty-nine-year-old fish seller Clarisse Kongnyuy says she agreed to register because the women convinced her that with hard work, she might even one day be on the ballot.

We can be able to do what a man can do, to be given posts that the world thinks that is only for men," she said. "There are women who are mechanics. There are women who are driving Caterpillars and all the like, but at first they thought that that was just the job of a man. The problem is that some of the women are not pushful. They are like sleeping."

Cameroon will be having a series of important elections this year � local, parliamentary and presidential.

Political parties, including the main opposition SDF and the ruling CPDM, have taken public commitments to achieve a U.N.-established benchmark of at least 30 percent female representation. The government has echoed that commitment, calling on parties to put forth an adequate number of female candidates.

The first election of the year is the senatorial, scheduled for March 25.

To meet the gender goal, women would need to win at least 20 of the 70 senatorial seats up for grabs, while President Paul Biya would have to include women among the 30 senators that the constitution calls on him to appoint.

Observers say the odds of success are long, at least in the short term.

Cameroon has 386 mayors. Just 26 are women. In the National Assembly, women occupy one-third of the seats in the lower house, while the upper house is just 20 percent women.

Female members of the ruling CPDM party say women should not to be discouraged.

Senator Julienne Djakaou of Cameroon's Far North region says many women are not able to participate in decision-making because of traditional misconceptions and early marriage, which derails their education.

She said she did not believe it when men in her community said the Bible prohibits women from participating in politics, and so she went to seek advice from the highest member of the Roman Catholic Church in Cameroon, Cardinal Christian Tumi. She said he told her that politics was for both men and women.

But some male politicians argue women aren't ready and that Cameroon needs to get more women to vote before it can get more women in office.

Women constitute 52 percent of the country's population. Yet, according to official figures, women account for just 30 percent of the seven million people registered to vote in this year's polls.

Source: Voice of America