Blog post written by Ayuk Nyakpo Orock, a PhD Sociology researcher at the University of Buea, Cameroon, focusing on refugee women in Cameroon’s labour markets. She has worked as a part time Lecturer on Gender, Migration and Refugee Studies at the Pan African Institute of Development West Africa, (PAID-WA) Buea Cameroon and also has substantial professional experience working with the WHO in Cameroon as Field Monitor, Finnish Red Cross and the Finnish Refugee Council as Migrant/refugee Integration Counsellor in Finland.


Cameroon became a signatory state to the 1951 Refugee convention on 23 October 1961 soon after it gained its independence (Mokake, 2009). However, it was not until 2005 that Cameroon ratified the International Refugee Convention and enacted its own refugee law and policy, which remains to this day the primary document dealing with asylum seekers and refugees in Cameroon. The three fundamental contributions of the 2005 refugee law are: (1) the definition of the term “refugee” according to the internationally accepted definition provided by the Refugee Convention and the OAU Convention. (2)  The incorporation of international law standards relating to refugees and asylum seekers; this area, deals with the protection of asylum seekers and refugees and, (3)   the establishment of national mechanisms for the identification of persons in need of protection.

The definition of refugee in Cameroon is closely modelled to that of the 1951 International Refugee Convention and the 1969 Organisation of African Unity Refugee Convention. A refugee in Cameroon is  considered as:

any person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership to a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fears, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former residence as result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.  

Furthermore, the second prong of article 1, however, expands the refugee definition to include any:

person who, owing to an aggression, foreign occupation, foreign domination or event that seriously undermine public order in either part or all of his country of origin or nationality, is obliged to leave his habitual residence and seek refuge in another place outside his country or origin or nationality” (Cameroon Refugee Law, 2005).

Although, the inclusion of the phrase “events seriously disturbing public order” expands the scope of the refugee definition, it is worth indicating that this definition however, is interpreted through a framework of male experiences. As such, pertinent questions are asked such as: What about women fleeing harm (domestic violence, rape, genital mutilation) that occurred in the ‘private sphere’? Issues of genital mutilation or domestic violence are aspects, which cannot be ignored, in our African society today. In 2017, the Cameroon government reported that most of the new refugees arriving from Central African Republic were women and children. Given this developments, it is crucial to have a gender-sensitive policy, which provides room for protection for women.

It is 14years since Cameroon enacted its refugee legislation, yet little attention has been given to including gender dimensions in the national refugee law. The scarcity of research exploring issues of gender in Cameroon’s 2005 refugee law has left the gaps in the policy which need  to be urgently handled.  It is against this backdrop that this blog post draws on particular aspects of feminist foreign policy (ffp) as a developing field in academic analysis to determine the level of gender inclusivity in Cameroon’s 2005 refugee and asylum legislation. It also argues for a dire need of gender mainstreaming into the Cameroon refugee policy. The first section assesses the gendered terminology in Cameroon Refugee Law and spotlights the impact of the lack of gender-sensitive focus in policy. Secondly, the blog post discusses the feminist foreign policy theoretical framework and how it is use to understand gender specificities in policy. Finally, a conclusion with recommendations on ways forward to enhance research in this field is proposed.

Gender in Cameroon’s Refugee Legislation: What about Women as refugees?

Cameroon refugee legislation has been praised as an open-door policy that is forward thinking in nature, which is in theory progressive (Barbelet, 2017). Yet, the progressive inclusion of gender dimensions taking into consideration women as refugees remains a major challenge. This is because of outdated definitions and criteria for refugee status outlined in the refugee Act of 2005. Cameroon has incorporated and confirmed the definition of refugee as given by the 1951 Refugee Convention, which in itself has been heavily criticised by the international community as not being gender sensitive. The criticisms hail from the fact that the 1951 definition does not include harm which occurred in the “private sphere”, (for example domestic violence, female genital mutilation or rape). Such persecution was not necessarily acknowledged nor considered to be linked to a 1951 Convention ground.

Besides, gender is altogether absent as a category upon which one can seek asylum. Importantly, other than the gender talk, there is a general lack of gender-sensitive considerations in Cameroon’s refugee policy, in relation to social protection and gender vulnerabilities. The sparse literature and research in this field even makes it more complex and complicated. The existing literature provides an overarching sense that refugees experience difficulties in the asylum process (Afuh, 2013; Mbua, 2015) and this hardly identifies the gender specific challenges which these refugees face in Cameroon. Gender as an identity exposes different genders to different risks (Rosenburg and Bakomenza, 2017). Women face particular problems and vulnerabilities as refugees. It is worth noting that prior to their arrival in host country seeking refugee status, during armed conflicts, displaced women and girls as well as female heads of households are particularly vulnerable and at risk of certain kinds of violence, including sexual violence. The consequences of such violence – for victims, their families and entire communities – are extremely serious. Therefore, a gender inclusive refugee legislation will provide room for gender-specific challenges.

My experience discussing with refugee women in Cameroon during my fieldwork research leaves me with first-hand knowledge of the risk, vulnerabilities and hardships refugee women in Cameroon face. Firstly, while conversing with some refugee women from Central African Republic, I realised they face different security threats from refugee men. Their experiences of are unique and different from what men face. The Central African Republic Women emphasized aspects of issues of being raped by unknown armed men on their way of escape from their country of origin to the country of refuge (Cameroon). This has also been reported by other studies. Mbuh (2018) mentioned that refugee women face issues of rape on the road from Central African Republic to Cameroon and even in Cameroon (Mbuh, 2018). Besides, refugee women are vulnerable to violence, trafficking during, and following their journey to Cameroon. According to research done by Overseas Development Institute 80% of trafficking victims worldwide are women, highlighting that refugee women experience an increase rate of risk on their way to Cameroon. Thus, it is essential to prioritise their protection, as women who have undergone gender-based violence by either rape or other forms need urgent medical attention.

Secondly, traditional gender ideologies in the Cameroon affects the refugee women’s ability to sustain themselves. Cameroon is a pre-dominantly patriarchal society (Endeley, 2010). Gender division of labour (which is interpreted into women caring for children, cleaning and cooking food) makes the unemployment rate for women to be lower than that of men. Given the patriarchal nature of the society, refugee women are likely to face challenges in accessing employment. Other studies in Cameroon show that those that find employment often do so in the informal sector engaging in domestic or agricultural sector (farming), tailoring or in small trading.

Feminist Foreign Policy (ffp) Theoretical Perspective

Feminist foreign policy approach has, at its core, a gendered approach to policy. Alwan (2017) remarks that a feminist foreign policy framework examines the role of gender within policy making and more predominantly asks questions on how an individual’s identity can influence their relationship to broader political and economic power structures. The feminist foreign policy focuses more on the marginalised and those excluded from power structures as it is rooted in a long history of feminist advocacy. According to Lee (2018), it is mainstreaming gender in the policy making process or advocating for gender as subject of focus. Lee further explains that a feminist foreign policy could also mean using gender as a category for analysis through which policy implications can be understood amongst different segments of the society.

In light of the above, the Cameroon refugee policy document was analysed for both gendered content and the use of gendered terminology in relation to women. The results from the analysis that indicates no attention has been given to gender issues in the policy necessitates immediate action by researchers and policy makers in Cameroon. Beginning with the flaws in the non-inclusion of the gender clause makes it evident to say that potentially, ‘gender refugees’ receive abusive treatments. The implication for this is that gender claims are automatically ignored which can result in abuses of human rights as protection on this basis is not granted. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, in its article 14, stipulates that: “everyone has the right to seek and enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution”. Focusing on the Cameroon refugee policy, the flaw of non-inclusion of a gender clause stems from the fact that the refugee legislation lacks an explicit definition for the term gender and this limits the transformative potential of the policy. Dolan (2015) highlights that hegemonic essentialist definitions of gender consider gender to be linked to biological characteristics and excludes huge numbers of non-binary conforming groups from eligibility to seek refuge. All these ideologies reinforce gender stereotypes and undermine effective implementation of the gender clause. Therefore, a more critical engagement is necessary in order to sensitize stakeholders working within the asylum system as this is crucial for protection of refugees who claim asylum based on gender.

Towards a Gender-specific Cameroon Refugee law

In analysing Cameroon Refugee Legislation, through the framework of feminist foreign policy (ffp) it is realised that there exist flaws in the Act. The first flaw identified is the non-inclusion of the gender clause in the definition of refugee, which makes gender refugees susceptible to abusive treatments. In addition, the lack of gender sensitive considerations coupled with the sparse research in this area makes it even more complex and complicated. This analysis therefore serves as a wakeup call for research in this area to ensure efficient protection of gender refugees.

List of References

  • Afuh, T.R. (2013). The Social Protection of Refugees in Cameroon. Master’s Thesis in International Relations (IRIC). Yaounde Cameroon.
  • Alwan, Christine and Weldon, S. Laurel. (2017). What is Feminist Foreign Policy?  An Exploratory Evaluation of Foreign Policy in OECD Countries.  Purdue University. 2017 European Conference on Politics and Gender. University of Lausanne Switzerland 
  • Barbelet Veronique. (2017). Refugees Need More Than Progressive Policy: Lessons from Cameroon. Refugee Deeply Archives.
  • Cameroon. 27 July 2005. Loi n°2005/006 du 27 juillet 200 portant statut des réfugiés au Cameroun.
  • Dolan, C. (2015) Letting go of the gender binary: Charting ne pathways for humanitarian interventions on gender-based violence, International Review of Red Cross.
  • Endeley, JB. (2010). Conceptualising Women’s Empowerment in Societies in Cameroon: How does money fit in?
  • Lee, D. (2018). What is Feminist Foreign Policy? Analysis of Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy, pp. 1-51.
  • Mbua, Emmanuel Eloundou. (2015). Law No. 2005/006 of 27 July 2005 Relating to the Status of Refugees in Cameroon: An Additional Hurdle or a Major Step Forward to Refugee Protection? Journal of Law, Policy and Globalisation. Vol 38.
  • Mbuh, Geraldine Wansoh. (2018). Gender Based Violence Against Female Refugees: The Case of Timangolo Site Bertoua, Cameroon. Unpublished MA Thesis, Peace, Conflict and Security Program. University of Buea Library.
  • Mokake, John. (2009). Basic Facts on Cameroon History Since 1884. CURE Series.
  • O’Neil, T, Fluery. A, and Foresti, M, (2016) Women on the Move: Migration, Gender Equality and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development,      Accessed 07/08/2019
  • Rosenberg, J. S., & Bakomeza, D. (2017). Let’s talk about sex work in humanitarian settings: piloting a rights-based approach to working with refugee women selling sex in Kampala. Reproductive health matters, 25(51), 95-102.

Photograph provided by author.

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