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Women Should Take-up More Seats In Parliament 

Interviewed by Francis Tim Mbom — Hon. Gwendoline Etonde Burnley, first female Cameroonian West of the Mungo to become a Member of Parliament in the Cameroon National Assembly in 1969, has regretted that there are only 25 women in Parliament today. She said since her days in the First Republic, when there were 17 female Parliamentarians, the National Assembly should have had at least 50 women today.

In support of the campaign for parity between women and men in the House of Assembly, Hon. Burnley offers advice on how to go about it to women who are aspiring to become Parliamentarians. In the following exclusive interview with The Post Newspaper at her Limbe residence on August 7, Hon Burnley, intimates that to become an MP and a successful one for that matter, one must earn his or her force from and keep in permanent touch with his or her constituency. Excerpts:

What advice will you accord to women who may want to vie for Parliament or become successful Members of Parliament?

I think that Parliamentarians should first speak for people. That is what it means. You don’t know what the people are thinking about you. They see you in public but I think they also want to hear you; what your views are on certain issues and they want to be convinced that you feel something of what they are experiencing. You must hear and feel their experiences.

Some people are of the opinion that since we have a large female population in Cameroon, this can play as an advantage to women if they aspire to be voted for.

It could be. I am glad you say it could be. You can have a large female population but you need to have the consciousness of the need and the value of a female Parliamentarian. To most women they are so concerned about the trouble of getting things done that they are not aware of the influence of the Parliamentarian.

It doesn’t matter to them whether the Parliamentarians are men or women. Their trouble is still there. But if they can see that being a woman or female parliamentarian can make a difference, they will go out and vote for women; I am quite sure. This means that they should be with the women more often.

Does this mean that if a woman is interested to vie for Parliament, they should, of necessity, let the population – so to say – see the value of a Parliamentarian in her?

Yes. Right now we have some organisation that is bringing women together. I think it started with market women. Some women politicians are making use of this. That way, I think the women will see that you are coming down to their level; you have feelings for them and they will begin to see how they can use a woman Parliamentarian. Maybe they don’t see the male Parliamentarian; but if the women who are already there can make them see if they elect more women into Parliament, they may be able to get more out of Parliament for their sake.

But now, I think women spend more time in Parliament than in their constituencies. One has to try to make a balance, because, some of the women, especially those who work in the rural areas, who form the majority of the women in the country, are so busy. They don’t usually have time to watch the television to see when their women Parliamentarians are speaking in Parliament.

And even when they see, many of them do not really follow, except you, as a Parliamentarian, try to follow up after your Parliamentary session to take time to explain your actions in Parliament to them. Else, they will say you are dressed up well and most of the time they see you just sitting. They don’t share your experiences. You have to come down to their level and share with them.

Are you saying that if the women are educated on the influence of a Parliamentarian and what a Parliamentarian is and how the rural women could channel their problems across, they will get interested?

This is what I am saying; you cannot share someone’s experience or experiences from a distance. I am saying that some of these women; they have to vote. Yes, they will vote. But many of them just go and vote. Somebody just tells them vote like this and they do.

But if they know that your being there will make or has made a difference for them, they will vote you. Even if it has not made a difference, at least, they believe that you understand, from your interactions with them, the kind of life they are living. For me, until I got to be together with the women, I did not fully appreciate some of the problems which they had.

And this got me very near to the rural communities. I am not in Parliament now but I still see a lot of women. I think these chairs (points to chairs around her large veranda) are not here for fun. People come and they are always coming. Sometimes, they just feel if they should come and talk to you, you will understand – and they will leave you with a better feeling, even if you are not able to do much for them.

For women who hold political or party positions, it is easier for them to meet women than for those who don’t. This is because, if you hold your party meetings regularly, people come and share with you; you can share ideas or even groundnuts, they will feel that they, also, are sharing some of the things which you get by being their Parliamentarian. I think this is what I will advise my colleagues who are active in politics. They should try always to feel what their electorates are feeling. It is not easy, that I know because, most of the time they are busy.

But they should always try to find time and visit their constituencies. It is more difficult now than when we were there. Parliamentary tours were required by the party; that’s going down to the constituencies. We had lesser sessions and more party meetings and tours of the constituencies. You need just to be with them, even if it is a ‘cry-die’ or so, you stop by and condole with them.

Do you mean if women vying for Parliament are always meeting with the women in the constituency, they earn their support to go to Parliament?

Yes, as I said, if you have a party post and you hold your meetings regularly. I think that helped me a lot. So I think that by now we should have progressed. The number of women in Parliament should, at least, have reached 50. It is nearly 25 years since I left Parliament and the number of women is at 25. At the time I left (in 1988) the number of women had risen up to 17 in the National Assembly.

What will be your advice to women who have been shying away from registering for elections?

I think I will advise that office holders in the party to organise – in fact – I think that’s what the re-organisation in the party is trying to do. To be more flexible so that people can meet their constituents more easily. The basic organs should try to meet. When I was in Parliament, I tried to hold my meetings more regularly. This is because, if people are not satisfied with you and they don’t feel your impact, they will say it out in the party. And I think that the party will listen.

Could we know more about your educational career?

I went to primary school in the Basel Mission School in Buea. Since there were no girls’ secondary schools then in Cameroon, my father sent me to the Church Missionary Society, CMS, in Lagos. After secondary school, I went to post secondary school and then to the University.

I graduated and decided to go and do a Post Graduate Diploma in Social Welfare in The Hague. In fact, this is when I had the opportunity to travel to Europe in the field; I met and worked with women groups. And when I came back home, I had enough experience with the grassroots women and I think that helped me when I found myself in politics.

What practical advice will you want to give any aspiring Parliamentarian, especially the women folk?

They should try to know their people or electorate. You should know your people and they should know you also. I think the more direct our contacts are the more valuable it will be. In those days, the party will go and campaign for you but when you have come back, you should go and, then, campaign now for yourself and for your future. One thing that people want to value is to know where you live.

It is alright to go to them but they will also want to know where you are living, so that they can always come to you when they have a problem, even if you are unable to solve it. You know, when somebody comes to you with a problem and you are not able to solve it, but you are able to make the person feel you share in his or her problem, he or she will feel lighter.

How did you become a Parliamentarian?

I just heard my name on radio that I had been nominated by the party then, to be the representative of the women in the West Cameroon House of Assembly. At the time politics was a matter of the men. When any party won the election, be it the KNDP, the KNC or KPP, I cannot really remember all, the party will then nominate a single woman to be the representative of the women in Parliament. At the time, I think the House of Assembly had 39 members and I was the lone woman nominated, though, to represent the interest of the women.

At the time before you became a Parliamentarian, were women part of the political game?

Not Really. It was only women whose husbands were involved in political party business – the only political party we had then. There was multiparty politics before and, at some point, people felt that we were not making progress, we were only quarreling. The politicians got together – I only heard, I was not inside there – to form one party. They formed the Cameroon National Union.

And they decided that each of the parties that had been dissolved will come together and present a candidate for the elections. I don’t know, it was a competition, really. Each party provided candidates for each area or constituency, depending on their numbers. And women were not included. I was teaching, then in Kumba, I think. And I was not even among the women in the party who were helping to see that people were fed and all the things which had to be done were done.

I just heard my name that I had been selected to represent the women. I think that, after they had gone through the elections process and found out that there were no women among themselves, they decided to put in a woman. And that’s how I entered politics. I don’t know whether to coin it politics here. But that is how I went to parliament. Yes, then it was the West Cameroon Parliament or House of Assembly.

So, how many Parliamentarians were there then?

It was a small house. I think there were about 39 MPs and I was the only female. You know, as I told you, that the party that won the elections had the option to nominate a woman and it was usually one woman. When the KNC won the first elections, they nominated one Mrs. Edoh. People always forget her but she was a very bold and clear speaker. It was the KNC – Dr. Endeley’s party and it was Mrs Edoh, a woman from New Town, Victoria, then, who was nominated.

She was the first woman nominated to join the elected House of Assembly in Buea at the time. Then, after this House later dissolved another House was formed and, this time, it was the KNDP party of John Ngu Foncha, that won. They also nominated a woman. But when the parties came together, that is the East and West Cameroon, after having decided to merge into one national party that is when I was co-opted.

I accepted. I really did not cherish it because I wanted to stay on in my civil service job where I was teaching, but I had to accept the nomination, because Dr Endeley came and said; you are very dissatisfied with so many things, this is the place where you can now go and correct them. So I took the advantage.

What did you do then for the women as their nominated representative?

I took the full advantage and all the disadvantages that women had then, I brought them up in Parliament. And they will say go and see the Secretary of State; go and see the Prime Minister. It took me time but I was able to get a lot of things done for the women.

For instance, I felt that the ratio of one woman representative was not a good ratio for even 20 men. So, I debated and debated and debated and the next House that was formed, there were five of us women in Parliament. But among the five, then, I was the only one from West Cameroon. The four others came from East Cameroon.

So what happened next?

Well, they say Rome was not built in a day, so, I continued to push hard and until the number of women then rose to 12 in the next Legislature. And before I finally left parliament in 1988, I think there were then 17 females in Parliament; the number having grown from one when I joined the National Assembly (sometime in 1969) to 17 by 1988.

How many terms did you do in Parliament?

I had four terms in the National Assembly and one uncompleted term in the West Cameroon House of Assembly. And each term was five years. When the West Cameron House of Assembly was dissolved, I went back to the Ministry where I was serving before and then, when the National Assembly was formed, I was drafted in.

But by the time I left, I was satisfied with the number of 17 women in Parliament, because, they always said there were more women going by the population. When they did the first national census, they said we were 51 percent and so 17 women in a House of 50 were just too small. You can check the total number of MPs then with some authorities, for I think the total was 100. You know, at my age now, 80, my memory is not so good.

What have you been doing since you left Parliament?

I have been doing a lot. I have done work for the United Nations; I have taught at the Pan-African Institute [Buea] on a part-time basis. I used to give lectures on Women and Development and other issues. I did a certain study for the Pan-African Institute which took me to certain parts of Africa.

With your rich experience in Parliament, how can it help other women who are interested to get to Parliament as Cameroon prepares for the upcoming Legislative and Municipal elections?

Yes, women who are interested and they think that I can be of help, they usually come and talk to me and ask how I see it and what I think is the best way of going about it. But these are women who are around here.

What about women who are, say, in Bamenda, Kumba, Yaounde and other places?

I think that men have realised that the presence of women in politics has not made the political action worse. If anything, it has improved because other interests are being met. We used to underrate or underestimate the influence of the mother in the family. But I think that has changed now because, people who are married to educated women and professionals have seen the advantages.

I think most families have seen the need for educated and active women in public life, although the need for the woman at home remains very important, especially for the children and the welfare of the home. I don’t think there are any men now who want to see their wives confined only to their homes – even in Moslem families, it is changing.

When you left Parliament, it was yet another woman, Hon Victoria Ndando, who was voted in. After her, came another woman, Hon Catherine Meboka, and today, Hon Rachel Lyonga a.k.a Mami Buyam Sellam. What do you think has accounted for this unbroken record of Limbe having only women as their Parliamentarians?

Well, I don’t know but I think that the ill-effect that made people fear to see women in public life has not manifested itself in Limbe. I mean, I did not desert my home because I was in politics. My husband was not neglected because his wife was holding a public office. And I think that encouraged other men, that, if anything, it has helped their home and their children to see Mummy also being entrusted with State and national duties.

If you look you will see that these families you have mentioned, their children have done very well in school. So, I think it has encouraged other people even in other parts of the country. I think there are more women coming up now.

But we still have many other areas in Cameroon which have not yet succeeded to have a woman as a Parliamentarian…?

Yes, but Rome, as it is said, was not built in a day. I know they say the increase is slow. It is just because they say when you have power you don’t want to let it go. And you have to understand that for any woman who comes to Parliament, one man loses his seat. There are still so many men who still feel very strongly that politics is outside the feminine domain.

They don’t trust their wives to attend political meetings in their absence and so on. But I think it is dying out gradually. And I think it is because here, the society is more open and the women have been seen to behave acceptably well. So, people are becoming more and more to trust their wives who want to hold public office or appointments.

Before, even for a woman to be a teacher, some families did not agree. But now it appears that soon there will be more women teachers than the men. I just think that in Limbe people have come to consider that the parliamentary seat here is a woman’s seat. You know, it’s a kind of complex I think. It’s a woman’s seat. But, I think one day the men may take it back (laughs). I don’t think that it will be a woman’s seat forever.

And I think also that women in other areas are coming up. I have been following some of the activities in the current Parliament and I found some women in the Northwest doing very well; especially with this issue of funding to their constituencies to create project activities. All these things make it interesting and I think, by this, more women could succeed.

But the problem too that retards women is that they are very busy. Some of the women work long hours in their farms; some of them are in the market place trying to get money to help their families, especially those who did not go far in education will want their children to go further and for them those are priorities than fighting to go to Parliament. Also, it is a lot of money to spend just to go to Parliament.

Do you think if we should have more women in Parliament, this will be of advantage to the women?

I think we should have more women everywhere because God did not make a mistake to create both sexes. And until we reach maximum cooperation between men and women and maximum participation of women and men in any activity, then shall we have a better platform. Because, when there is an issue being discussed, the women and the men don’t look at it in exactly the same way. So, if you have both views, you will be able to choose the best or you will be able to say; let’s have half of this, half of that and so on.

What will be your advice to women elsewhere?

I have always considered politics to be serving the people and I maintained a very close proximity to the people and I think that is why I was able to do four terms while I was in Parliament. This is because, people saw me all the time. I did a lot of constituency tours. I don’t think that there is enough of that kind of thing now.

And if I were to advise my fellow women in other parts of the country, then, I will say that you cannot be a people’s representative if you are not always there with them. I know it is difficult, especially if you have your own home and you have work out of home, too. But it doesn’t make sense if your people only see you once in a while. I believed very much in constituency tours.

As soon as I got back from Yaounde, that’s after a session, I arranged to go round my area. Maybe not really meeting big groups, but there is the need to meet them, talk to them and explain the laws that were passed and so on. Some of them don’t usually follow it. So, there is a lot that happens in Parliament and if you don’t know it or follow it, it will just sound as pouring water over you head and wiping it off again.

So, that’s what I will say to my sisters in the areas where they have not been able to penetrate because, you know, if when I was nominated I did not take the time to know about the people in my constituency, people will just forget about you and the next thing is that they start looking for someone else, even before your term ends. I think people are too busy with the formal part of politics and they tend to miss the human part of it. If you are always with your people and take the time to explain some of the laws passed in Parliament, I think you will be on the lane of success.

First published in The Post print edition No. 1365

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