The recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights is a recent development on the African continent. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights has, over the last decade, given heightened attention to indigenous peoples’ rights, notably through the creation of its Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities (WGIP) in 2000. This is mostly due to the efforts of civil society organisations which have documented the obstacles faced by indigenous peoples in the enjoyment of their individual and collective rights, and which have brought the many instances where these rights have been violated to the attention of the Commission.
Until recently, the focus on indigenous peoples’ rights has not always been accompanied by special concerns for the rights of indigenous women. In Cameroon, concerted efforts by indigenous peoples’ and women’s organisations have prompted the African Commission to pay special attention to the situation of indigenous women within the country and, more generally, have influenced the development of relevant human rights standards at the regional level. With such efforts, the African Commission has demonstrated increased sensitivity to the rights of indigenous women. Among notable recent developments, the African Commission adopted an important resolution on the rights of indigenous women in Africa at its last session in April - May 2011 and, at the same session, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa launched the publication Indigenous women’s rights and the African human rights system: A toolkit on mechanisms, prepared by the Forest Peoples Programme (FPP) in collaboration with the Special Rapporteur.
Partners’ activities in Cameroon
In preparation for the examination of Cameroon’s State periodic report by the African Commission in May 2010, the Centre for Environment and Development (CED), in collaboration with local partners, undertook consultations with communities in Eastern and Southern Cameroon in March 2010. The purpose of the study was to gather information on the situation of indigenous women in Cameroon’s forests in order to better inform the elaboration of a supplementary report to the African Commission and to report on the situation of indigenous women and peoples in the country. Then, later in March 2010, indigenous women in Cameroon also had the opportunity to voice their concerns at the National Forum on Forests which welcomed the participation of 11 indigenous women.
Building on their supplementary report submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, in January 2010, CED, the Réseau Recherches Actions Concertées Pygmées (RACOPY), and FPP included the issues raised by indigenous women and their communities during the consultations and at the National Forum on Forests in their supplementary report to the African Commission. These issues included the multiple forms of discrimination faced by indigenous women in society; the violation of their reproductive rights; indigenous women’s increasing lack of access to health care, water, and traditional resources; and the obstacles to conducting their traditional and income-generating activities, which contribute to food insecurity, greater marginalisation, and extreme poverty. The report recommended that the Commission urge the State of Cameroon to take concrete measures to protect doubly marginalised indigenous women.
The African Commission’s Concluding Observations
The Concluding Observations that followed the consideration of Cameroon’s State report are remarkable for the number of recommendations relating to the rights of indigenous peoples. Many of the recommendations can be said to draw on the information outlined in the supplementary report submitted to the Commission. In addition to recommending that the State of Cameroon “[h]armonize the national legislation with the regional and international standards on the rights of indigenous populations/communities” and “work towards the consideration of their cultural peculiarities”, the African Commission also expressly directed the State of Cameroon to “[t]ake special measures to guarantee the protection and implementation of indigenous women’s rights due to their extreme vulnerability and the discrimination to which they are subject to.” These recommendations constitute important legal standards and a significant step for indigenous peoples and women. They can now be used at the national level for the recognition and implementation of their rights.
Latest developments on the rights of indigenous women
Important developments for indigenous women emerged from the African Commission’s latest ordinary session, held from April 25 to May 13, 2011 in Banjul, The Gambia. On April 28, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, Commissioner Soyata Maïga, launched a new publication entitled, Indigenous women’s rights and the African human rights system: A toolkit on mechanisms, developed by FPP and its partners in collaboration with her office. The Special Rapporteur lauded the publication as an important tool for civil society organisations to promote and protect the rights of indigenous women on the African continent. She expressed her hope that through the information provided in the toolkit, organisations would better understand how to become involved with the African Commission and the African human rights system in general.
Another important development reached at this session was the adoption by the African Commission of a resolution on the rights of indigenous women in Africa. This marks the first time that the Commission specifically addresses indigenous women’s rights in a resolution. Building on the 2010 Concluding Observations of the Commission in relation to Cameroon, as well as on a number of recommendations by the Working Group on Indigenous Populations/Communities made through a number of country visit reports, the resolution confirms the attention now given by the Commission to the specific situation of indigenous women. The resolution recognises, among other things, the “crucial role played by indigenous women in the protection and preservation of natural resources and in the protection, development and transmission of indigenous knowledge and culture” and urges State parties to:
“Collect disaggregated data on the general situation of indigenous women; Pay special attention to the status of women in their countries and to adopt laws, policies, and specific programs to promote and protect all their human rights;”
It further requests “all other concerned actors, notable NGOs, technical and financial partners to support the efforts of States Parties in the implementation of policies and programmes in favour of indigenous women”.
The heightened attention awarded to indigenous peoples and to indigenous women re-affirms the place of the Commission as an effective forum for African indigenous women to raise their voice and to participate in the Commission's various standard-setting mechanisms.
 The report submitted to United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in January 2010 is available at: http://www.forestpeoples.org/sites/fpp/files/publication/2010/02/cerdcameroonsubmissionjan10eng.pdf
 The report submitted to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in May 2010 is available at: http://www.forestpeoples.org/topics/african-human-rights-system/news/2010/10/african-commission-concerned-violations-indigenous-p
 The Concluding Observations and Recommendations on the Second Periodic Report of the Republic of Cameroon, adopted by the African Commission at its 47th Ordinary Session in May 2010 are available at: http://www.achpr.org/english/other/Con_Oberservations/Cameroon/3rd_rpt_.pdf
 CHPR/Res.183 (XLIX )2011: Resolution on the Protection of the Rights of Indigenous Women in Africa, available at: http://www.achpr.org/english/resolutions/Resolution183_en.htm