PIONEER AFRICAN WOMEN IN LAW
Human Rights Lawyer (Cameroon)
By Shiri Asangwe
Alice Nkom was born on January 14th, 1945 in Poutkak, Cameroon, fifteen years before Cameroon became an independent nation in 1960, declaring independence from the colonial chains of the French and British. Alice Nkom would grow up in what is still considered Francophone Cameroon, as the country is divided into ten regions, eight of which are ruled by French colonial customs and ruling, while two are ruled by British customs. Cameroon’s first elected president, Ahmadou Ahidjo, established and set the foundation on which the country’s laws and code of conduct would follow. Hence, later in her life, Alice Nkom addresses these problematic laws and ideologies that detrimentally permeate the public and social lives of LGBTIQ individuals living in Cameroon. Though before this, Alice Nkom pursued her higher education in France at the University of Toulouse (1963-1964) and completed her studies at the Federal University of Cameroon (1968). Amongst her extensive achievements, Alice Nkom broke barriers at the age of 24 when she became Cameroon’s first female attorney. Her stride into this overtly male-dominated profession, especially in Cameroon, continues to inspire and motivate generations of women lawyers in the country and on the continent.
Being the first of anything can be a bit daunting whether the title was intentional or unintentional. In the case of Alice Nkom, she has carried the responsibility of that title with grace, humility, and immense devotion to her work and the people of Cameroon. Nkom’s time as a budding lawyer was filled with defending “low income and vulnerable people, including political prisoners, street children, and women. Since 1979, she has been a stakeholder in one of the most prestigious law firms in Cameroon.” This information is significant as it showcases how impressive and Alice Nkom has always been, yet the pivot in the trajectory of her career and ultimate purpose for her life did not reveal itself until almost 34 years later. In 2003, “a chance meeting with some young gay Cameroonian men who had been living in Paris opened up her eyes to the human rights abuse the LGBT community was facing in her native country.” This unplanned discourse lit a fire in Nkom and from there she began to recognize and analyze how LGBTIQ individuals were being lawfully persecuted in Cameroon.
As the diligent and reputable lawyer that she is, Alice Nkom looked first to the laws that both defended human rights yet condemned and criminalized the rights of homosexuals. When examining the Cameroon Penal Code and coming across Article 347, it is clear that the country criminalizes sexual relations with a person of the same sex for up to five years in prison and possibly a fine.
Nkom realized the uncertainty and fear of exposure these individuals felt in the country and thus used her resources to establish the Association for the Defense of Homosexuality (ADEFHO) in 2003 “to work towards the decriminalization of homosexuality.” One of the main components of her arguments when defending individuals who have been imprisoned for being presumably homosexual and when engaging with other leaders about Cameroon’s homophobia is that it is more so the acts of homosexuality that are being criminalized and in need of remedy, not the identity component of being homosexual. Essentially, “being homosexual is not a crime, however a ‘provision’ was added into the law in 1972 making homosexual acts illegal. Nkom uses this awareness of the more superior law – the original constitution – to get people out of jail.”
Moreover, one of the major strides in this struggle that has garnered Alice Nkom and her NGO attention is her defense for Roger Jean-Claude Mbédé. He was convicted in 2011 of alleged homosexual conduct after he sent a text to another man stating, “I am very much in love with you.” Nkom appealed his case to the Supreme Court, despite his untimely death in 2013. Additionally, Nkom defended two men who were convicted in 2012 based on their appearance and their drinking of Bailey’s Irish Cream; this highlights how ambiguously bigoted the laws and reasoning for condemnation are in Cameroon. This is the fight Alice Nkom has dedicated her life to. It is prudent to note the adversity in her finances, safety, dignity, and more that she has had to overcome as a result of this struggle. Nkom writes, “I receive constant death threats and any volunteers who work for me soon have to stop because they too receive death threats and find themselves ostracized by society...the government has made it as hard as possible for me to apply for international support...I am the only person providing legal counsel for these people. I do this work full time now but cannot simply defend them all.”
Albeit the intensity of Alice Nkom’s plight for justice, her efforts have been recognized and are impacting people all across the world. She received the German branch of Amnesty International award in March 2014. Additionally, she received EU funding in 2010 for a total of £300,000. Despite the ample uphill battles that Alice Nkom faces and runs after, she is an extraordinary pioneer of LGBTIQ advocacy. She has identified an area in her society that needs change and someone to lead that change. Through her assiduous character, she became the first female attorney in Cameroon and exceeded all expectations as a first. Alice Nkom has laid the foundation and earnestly campaigned for a just and promising world for all people, regardless of sexual orientation.
Her work deserves praise and she has added more value and integrity to the field of law, all whilst remaining firm in her identity as a Cameroonian woman with all the grit and grace this world has to offer.