Activist Promotes Charter Ending Wife Inheritance and Degrading Widowhood Rites in Cameroon

Wife inheritance and humiliating widowhood rites are the norm in some villages in the Northwest region of Cameroon. To end these practices, Anne Stella Fomumbod has come up with a rule book that protects the rights and honor of widows.

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Activist Promotes Charter Ending Wife Inheritance and Degrading Widowhood Rites in Cameroon

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BAMENDA, CAMEROON – With a pen in one hand and a phone in the other, Anne Stella Fomumbod is sitting in her office in Bamenda, the capital of Cameroon’s Northwest region. In addition to gathering information on the number of widows’ groups in a community in the region, the 52-year-old woman is asking how widows in that community are treated.

This is the kind of background check Fomumbod conducts before she begins working with widows in a community.

Fomumbod says God called on her in 1999 to promote and protect the rights of vulnerable people. God spoke to Fomumbod in dreams three times, asking her to help orphans and widows, she says.

“I didn’t just wake up one day and decide to start working with orphans and widows,” she says with a broad smile. “My work came as a result of a divine call.”

After the third dream, Fomumbod began traveling about town giving money and food to beggars, children living on the streets and widows, she says. She then quit her job as a school inspector to devote herself to charitable work.

Her colleagues and friends thought she had gone mad, but Fomumbod was confident she was doing the right thing.

“I wanted to fulfill God’s call, and I did,” she says. “The need to work closely and intimately with orphans and widows was far more important to me.”

Fomumbod is now the chief executive officer of Interfaith Vision Foundation Cameroon, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the rights of various demographic groups in the Northwest region, emphasizing the rights of widows. In 2010, she came up with the Widows’ Charter, a rule book that governs the treatment of widows in Cameroon.

Some 97 villages have signed the charter. Beginning this year, Fomumbod plans to extend her work to five other regions of Cameroon.

Widows make up a third of the Northwest region’s population, Fomumbod says. She obtained this figure from her work in the region, a workshop on widow empowerment organized by civil society organizations, and the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family in Yaoundé.

A widow herself for four years, Fomumbod says she understands what widows go through.

Quite often, women in Cameroon lose property to relatives once their husbands die, she says. Destitution often compels them to marry relatives of their late husbands.

Some communities require widows to strictly observe traditional mourning rites. Widows are often expected to sleep on the floor throughout a mourning period of six months to a year. In some villages, widows are forbidden to bathe during the mourning period.

Cordelia Ndagha, the Mezam divisional delegate to the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and the Family for the Northwest region, says she has witnessed such rituals.

Some communities expect women to undress in public and wail immediately after their husbands die, she says. They are also expected to eat from the floor.

In the village of Bali Nyonga, in the Northwest region, widows are expected to refrain from shaking anyone’s hand while in mourning, Ndagha says. In most communities in the region, widows are inherited by the brothers or male cousins of their late husbands.

Older widows traditionally compel new widows to submit to these practices, she says.

When Fomumbod’s husband died in 2010, older widows tried to make her observe such rites, but she refused. Knowing of her work as an advocate for widows’ rights, none of her late husband’s relatives came to demand her property, she says.

Fomumbod believes God called her to empower widows by freeing them from such traditional practices.

Since she founded her organization in 1999, Fomumbod has worked with more than 7,000 widows in the Northwest region, giving them financial, moral and psychological support.

In 2010, she crafted a set of rules regarding the treatment of widows. The Widows’ Charter, as she named it, criminalizes wife inheritance and widowhood rites.

Fomumbod now goes from village to village asking local authorities to sign the charter. Of the 800 villages in the Northwest region, some 97 have committed to the charter so far.

Women in villages that have adopted the charter have been able to keep their property after their husbands have died.

Margaret Ambe, a widow who lives in Mbengwi, a village that has adopted the Widows’ Charter, says she did not lose her property when her husband died last year. She credits Fomumbod’s charter.

“When my husband died, I thought I was going to lose everything to relatives,” she says. “To my greatest surprise, no family member came forward to pressurize me to leave my husband’s house or stop working on my crops on the plot of land he left.”

Relatives of Ambe’s late husband have been cooperative. That would not have happened if the traditional chief, known as the fon, had not signed the Widows’ Charter, she says.

“I believe people are now scared of receiving a punishment from the fon should they go contrary to what the local law says,” Ambe says.

His Royal Highness Thaddeus Njokom Ano, the fon of Mbengwi village and the president of the Metta Fons Union, an association of traditional rulers, signed the charter in 2010 on behalf of the 29 villages that make up the Metta Fondom, the clan he rules.

“The lives of widows in my fondom have changed for the better, thanks to the charter,” he says.

These days, widows are inheriting their husbands’ property without any problem, Ano says.

“Any member of the community reported to have stripped a widow of her late husband’s property will face the punishment of the traditional council,” he says.

Punishment can range from a fine to exile. Furthermore, any property taken from a widow will be seized and returned.

Adoption of the charter has discouraged banned behavior, Ano says.

“Honestly, we have not been having reports of such occurrences since the charter was signed,” he says.

Fomumbod’s organization also has funded several widows’ projects in his community and given school supplies to orphans, Ano says.

“The work that Fomumbod has done for widows and orphans in the region is immeasurable,” he says. “I personally respect her.”

Officials of the Northwest region also recognize Fomumbod’s work.

“Her intervention has gone a step further to reduce discriminatory practices against widows,” Ndagha says.

Of the more than 30 organizations working in the region, Interfaith Vision Foundation Cameroon stands out for its service to the most vulnerable groups in society, Ndagha says.

Fomumbod plans to further advance the rights of widows in the new year.

She aims to extend her work to all 10 regions of Cameroon, starting with Southwest region, the Littoral region, the Center region, the West region and the South region.

She is also developing plans for a multipurpose building that will serve as an office and conference center. The building also will include apartments that will be rented out to families; the revenue will go to support more widows.

Fomumbod credits the charter with helping her get this far. It provides a base for her service to women in need.

“I believe the Widows’ Charter is a powerful tool capable of turning the lives of widows around,” Fomumbod says.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to comply with the Global Press Style Guide.