The cultural and social consequences and effect on families of women's involvement in drug trafficking in Cameroon: crime and imprisonment


Women and drug trafficking in Cameroon
Effect of drug trafficking on women's lives


Pages: 31 to 37
Creation Date: 1995/01/01

The cultural and social consequences and effect on families of women's involvement in drug trafficking in Cameroon: crime and imprisonment

J. NOUTHE-DJUBGANG Director, Occupational Health and Safety, Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance; Chief Treasurer and physician at the Idolé Foundation, Messa, Yaoundé, Cameroon
J. M. MALONGA Ministry of Social and Women's. Affairs, Division of Family and Individual Welfare; President of the Idolé Foundation, Messg Yaoundé, Cameroon
A. IDOLÉ MÉKOUNDÉ Research Assistant, Ministry of Scientific and Technical Research, Division of Programme Planning; Founder of the Idolé Foundation, Messa, Yaoundé, Cameroon

The aim of the Idolé Foundation, which was established in June 1993, is to help women discharged from prison. To achieve that aim, it has opened a centre where women are provided with free accommodation and training of various kinds, including sewing, dyeing, embroidery, soap-making, cooking and sex education. It has been observed that 30 per cent of these former prisoners were drug dependent and another 30 per cent had had contact with drugs without becoming dependent. These women continue to consume drugs while in prison, where they resort to a number of strategies to satisfy their craving and, on release, their addiction forces them into violent milieux, where they are subjected to sexual slavery. Forced to share their earnings with procurers, they are obliged, in order to continue their drug habit, to change partners and submit to increasingly depraved demands, including the introduction of sometimes very dangerous substances into their genital organs.


The goal that the Idols Foundation has set itself is to help women after their release from prison. In order to attain this goal, it opened a hostel and centre for women ex-prisoners on 13 June 1993 where they receive various kinds of training to enable them to prepare themselves for their harmonious reintegration into society. A total of 74 women have been admitted to the hostel since its opening. These women have been the source of information regarding the consequences of the involvement of women in drug trafficking, because 30 per cent of the hostel's residents are former drug abusers. The Foundation provides ex-prisoners with training in sewing and embroidery in its own workshop, dyeing and soap manufacture with community development officers, and provides lessons in cooking, law, home economics, reading, writing and sex education. When residents are admitted, the Foundation makes contact with their families and friends, gives them psychological support and whatever small items they may need to join in the activities offered by the centre: thread, fabric, wool, moulds, dyes etc. The Foundation has thus been able to reconstruct the careers of these women by examining their lifestyles and identify the cultural, social and familial consequences of their engagement in drug trafficking as suppliers or consumers. After looking at the reasons that prompt women to become involved in drugs, the present article explores the ways in which they become involved in the trafficking and abuse of drugs and then proceeds to examine the consequences of that involvement.

Women and drug trafficking in Cameroon

To gain a better understanding of the extent of the involvement of women in drug abuse and trafficking in Cameroon, the authors considered it necessary to record the different substances used, the means by which they are procured and marketed and the causes of the involvement of women in drug trafficking.

The role of women in the distribution of drugs can be attributed to a number of phenomena. Part of the blame rests with matrimonial problems such as divorce and separation brought on by ever worsening economic conditions, which result in unemployment for many and financial losses that households find impossible to make up. Then again, adoleseence with its crises and rejection of adult authority also plays a part. The abdication by some parents of their educational responsibilities and their apathy when faced with the negative affects of the media on their children's moral development are factors that propel children towards drugs [ 1] .

Although women manage to get hold of local, unidentified hallucinogenic plants, they do not always have access to all the drugs sold in Cameroon. But some of them are fairly easy for women to obtain such as: cola, tobacco, common types of alcohol or arki distilled from raffia wine, cannabis (commonly known as Indian hemp), solvents such as cellulose thinner used by garage mechanics to mend car tyres, and, lastly, psychotropic substances such as amphetamines and barbiturates.

Tobacco and cola, for example, are sold openly at markets by persons of either sex. The distillation of arkiby men and its marketing by women, carried out clandestinely several years ago, have recently been permitted in connection with the policy of economic liberalization, a concession that has to some extent encouraged excessive consumption. As for obtaining cellulose thinner, it is merely a matter of finding some small garage in any town in the country and offering a modest amount of money. The psychotropic substances are also affordable to those of the most modest means, displayed as they are in the numerous street pharmacies selling their products free of any kind of regulatory control. Only cannabis, which grows naturally as a shrub, is cultivated secretly by women between cassava plants. They sell it discreetly wrapped up in packages of vegetables, standing amongst the lepers and the blind and other physically disabled people begging at the entrances to department stores or at the many railway and coach stations in the towns. The apparent destitution of this group of people is their best cover, especially as a woman can approach them with impunity on the pretext of giving them alms.

All these products, however, used to have, and still do, very specific traditional uses. Tobacco, for example, combined with other plants, was in certain ethnic groups administered in tiny doses as a purgative to women who had had a difficult labour in order to restore their energy. It was also smoked, snorted and chewed, but not to excess.

Cola, which is chewed constantly by old people in north and west Cameroon, was and still is a symbol of peace and friendship inseparable from all ceremonies that seal some kind of union; engagement parties and weddings are unthinkable in some villages without cola. From the physical point of view, it provided an extra boost to keep people alert and in form during long and strenuous periods of work such as hunting in the forests and fishing on the open sea during the rainy season.

Arki,which is drunk at important occasions such as funerals and weddings, is never consumed pure but diluted with fresh raffia wine in order to induce a moderately tipsy state rather than complete intoxication.

Cannabis, which is used extensively by traditional African practitioners in combination with other remedies for the relief of mental illness, is widely known for its use in alleviating various diseases such as filarial infections, for which it is combined with garlic and other plants.

Only the solvents and psychotropic substances were unknown to Africans before colonization. But their original purpose was also quite different: cellulose thinner is meant for mending punctured tyres and the various drugs have a very specific medical use.

Nowadays, however, the original specific purpose for which these products were used has been totally perverted. Although tobacco, for instance, is still chewed, snorted and smoked in a pipe, it is also enjoyed in the form of cigarettes and cigars, which leads to addiction and can cause lung disease. The problem is even more serious if tobacco is used in combination with other plants, not for the purposes of medical treatment but for use as an aphrodisiac, with all the accompanying excesses that such behaviour implies.

The same is true of cola when it is chewed for a long time with other ingredients. Arki is now distilled by men and marketed by women from deprived sections of the population who thus gain a small income. The sad spectacle of drunken women leaving a trail of violence and foul language in the streets and in their homes is a recent phenomenon in many towns, which has had a seriously damaging effect on the upbringing of large numbers of children. Moreover, the consumption of alcohol such as arkileads to addiction.

Psychotropic substances and cellulose thinner also produce similar effects to those of strong alcohol, seriously damaging the functioning of certain cells in the nervous system in the same way as alcohol does. Persons using them regularly become extremely drug dependent.

Women smoke or drink a cannabis concoction in order to achieve a trance-like state beyond that of inebriation, which can, in extreme cases, resemble mental illness leading to the deterioration of the nervous system in the long term. Furthermore, the women who use this product crush it and make little pellets out of it, which they insert into the vagina like a pessary for apparently aphrodisiac purposes with all the health risks attendant upon such a practice. Among the 74 women admitted to the hostel after their discharge from prison, 30 were interviewed but only 8 of them could be examined. Four were drug dependent. Although at least 8 out of the 74 women confessed that they used cannabis pessaries, only 3 of these 8 women were found to have vulvar and vaginal lesions and discolorations from such practices.

Effect of drug trafficking on women's lives

A recent study by the authors suggests that women's involvement in drug abuse and trafficking in Cameroon has disastrous effects on the most important parts of their lives, such as those to do with their sociocultural situation and their families.

From the cultural point of view, the diversion of narcotic drugs from their original uses, which represents a violation of community values, leads to total contempt on the part of the social group to which the drug abuser belongs, a contempt that soon earns the drug abuser a bad reputation. Such ostracism reflects "the stereotypes constituting a primitive mechanism used by the group to assess and protect itself against a risk" [ 2] symbolized by a deviant attitude. It is therefore "a sanction whose purpose is to ensure general compliance with action designed to discourage all the various forms of nonconformity to the rules established within a community. It is a means of social control" ( [ 3] , pp. 54-55).

Public disapproval of the behaviour of drug-dependent persons is all the greater for the fact that drugs, with the exception of cola, are known to create a strong dependence. In order to make up for this loss of approval, drug-dependent women are often driven, despite their better judgement, into highly questionable situations in which events are largely beyond their control. In order to obtain increasing doses of their favourite drugs, such women are forced to find sources of money. As they are mostly of modest means with no fixed income, they often have no choice but to become sex workers and subject themselves to a kind of slavery in which they are exploited by having to share their profits with pimps who usually demand the lion's share.

This loss in earnings forces them to accept a succession of ever more varied and depraved partners, which is how such drug-dependent women end up inserting into their vaginas such substances as tobacco, cannabis, rock salt and small stones that have undergone a traditional chemical treatment to produce a dry or hot vagina (the dry or hot sex preferred by their clients). Despite the use of these products in intercourse to obtain the greatest possible satisfaction for their partners, which leads to successful business, these women seldom manage to earn enough to finance their habit if they do not do what their clients demand. Thus they get drawn into gangs which, apart from abusing and trafficking in drugs, engage in illicit activities and theft involving violent armed attacks. At this point, society administers "the judicial sanctions" ( [ 3] , p. 52) specified for the purpose, namely, imprisonment for terms of varying lengths, as possession and abuse of drugs, and theft and violence are crimes subject to harsh penalties under the legislation of Cameroon.

When they are in prison, most drug-dependent persons, far from giving up their habit, go on to establish new networks inside the prison. They use dishonest prison guards who sell them drugs directly or they use another prisoner as an intermediary, without the knowledge of the other prison officials, or they use other prisoners who have won the trust of their jailers to such an extent by their apparently exemplary attitude that they are only lightly searched when they re-enter the prison building. In some-exceptional cases, friends and relations can smuggle the drugs in when visiting, but this stratagem is fairly risky because of the extremely tight surveillance procedures in prison. For this reason the drugs introduced are ones that can be fairly easily hidden, such as psychotropic substances in the form of tablets, and cannabis in powder or leaf form. Guards who carry these substances roll them up in little plastic sachets in their bags and prisoners wrap them up in paper and conceal them in their underwear or half-inserted in their anus. The drug-dependent prisoners then either drink the substance or smoke it in the lavatories.

On the personal and family level, women involved in drug abuse and trafficking are an object of shame for their families, especially if they have also been in prison. They are rejected and isolated, which condemns them to an unbearable degree of solitude. Thus deprived of moral or financial support they succumb to "particular forms of deviance resulting from the conflict between the essential values of a society and the means available to them to apply those values in their lives" [ 4] . They realize that their social group expects them to behave in a specific way because "through the role he or she performs, every person is to some extent a social being and plays the part of father or mother, adopting the behaviour and attitudes mapped out by society in general terms at least" ( [ 3] , p. 49).

In the particular case of women in sub-Saharan Africa, they are expected to be good mothers capable of bringing up their children properly. Thus, women prisoners try desperately on their release to rebuild the families that they no longer have. Their partners, chosen of necessity from the marginal milieu inhabited by the women and therefore more or less deviant like them, become aware at a certain stage in the relationship of the women's almost vital need to have a stable man in their lives at any price and set about blackmailing the women for a variety of reasons. This situation leads the women into a life of sexual and emotional vagrancy exposing them to sexually transmitted diseases and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The demands of dry, hot sex in addition to other forms of sex expose women to microscopic vaginal lesions during intercourse and thus promote the transmission of such diseases. These sexually transmitted diseases (such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea and other similar infections) are the principal causes of sterility in women when they are either poorly treated or left untreated. Although the rate of HIV infection has not yet been researched among female prisoners, its high incidence among sex workers (25.6 per cent in Yaoundé) [ 5] is worthy of mention.

Nevertheless, the main purpose of marriage in sub-Saharan Africa is to have children and thus create a family. The life that these women lead, however, condemns them to childlessness and hence the inability to found a family. In brief, rejected by family and society, which have a disapproving attitude towards these women, the women try to re-establish a home, which would give them a place in African society, but the way they go about it has exactly the opposite effect and they end up finding out that there is no way out of the negative situation. Even if they manage by dint of extreme effort to establish a family life, it is often unstable and the children, with little or no supervision, spend the day roaming the streets of the disreputable districts where their parents live. This state of affairs exposes them to a number of dangers, the most serious of which is the tendency to follow their elders' example by taking drugs. It is no longer rare, unfortunately, to see children, never having known any other way of life, getting high on cellulose thinner in the side-streets and alley-ways of towns. Thus, the circle of deprivation is closed. Little girls starting off with such a childhood have no choice but to repeat the pattern of their mothers' lives, an existence that is destabilized at its very base.


The corruption of the original use of various drugs has led to women abusing them, becoming drug dependent and, in order to finance the habit, frequenting the kind of milieu in which they become involved in nefarious activities such as theft and other crimes. Such women thus become the object of social judicial sanction in the form of imprisonment. The drug habit continues, even in prison, and on their release, faced with the rejection of their own family, the women try in vain to build a new one. As a result of going from one partner to another in a kind of sexual vagrancy, they contract sexually transmitted diseases, which render them infertile and prevent them from fulfilling the reproductive function expected of them. As a consequence, they are locked into a marginal situation and become prey to a host of financial, moral and familial demands that they are unable to meet.



United Nations International Drug Control Programme, Final report of the Expert Forum on Demand Reduction in Cameroun, Yaoundé, Cameroon, 6-10 February 1995, annex III.


J. Maison, La psychologie sociale (Social psychology) (Paris, Presses universitaires de France, 1991), p. 111.


G. Rocher, Introduction à la sociologie générale: L'action sociale (Introduction to general sociology: social intervention) (Paris, Editions HMH, 1968).


Mendras,Elémentsdesociologie(Elements of sociology)(Paris, Editions Armand Colin, 1975), p. 102.


M. Garcia Calleja and A. Abenji, "Review of HIV prevalence studies in Cameroon", Bulletin d'information sur le SIDA, No. 1, November 1993.