Social welfare policy towards female-headed households in Cameroon.
The aim of this study was to explore social welfare policy towards female-headed households (FHHs) in Cameroon and to suggest ways of transforming the sector at policy and practical levels in order to ensure that the needs of members of FHHs are effectively met within a social development praxis. The methodology used in collecting data was semi-structured questionnaires, one for female household heads and the other for officials of the Ministry of Social Affairs (MINAS) and Ministry of Women's Affairs (MINCOF), supplemented by documentary sources. The target populations were made up of 85 officials and 14,535 female- households heads where a stratified random sample and purposive sample of 25 and 335 respectively, were selected. Triangulation method was used in both the collection and analysis process. There were eight critical research questions postulated to guide the study, and the major findings of the study included the following: Firstly, the economic conditions of FHHs were found to be fairly satisfactory. However, with the all-embracing responsibilities to themselves and their dependents, it was argued that this could offset their economic viability. Secondly, social services from various stakeholders were rated differently. From the National Social Insurance Fund (NSIF), social service delivery was rated to be below average, with corruption and long duration of processing of documents was perceived as factors causing inefficiency. Recurrent complaints and claims reported by female household heads to MINAS included financial and other support though female-households heads rated their services to them as satisfactory, as complaints and claims reported were processed within a reasonable time. The main problems with MINAS were perceived to be a shortage of staff and poor working conditions. However, MINAS's empowering activities were found to be less than empowering. Also, those of women's empowerment centres (WECs) were not empowering, given the lack of befitting infrastructure and staff shortages. Thirdly, no form of social grant exists for members of FHHs, except occasional financial assistance to victims of calamities. Furthermore, the findings revealed that although most of the officials were acquainted with their ministerial objectives, which many held as relevant but unattainable and inapplicable. Many officials were not acquainted with current legislation on women. Ministerial objectives were perceived to be broad, compounded by staff shortages and low budgetary allocations. The findings also revealed that a majority of the staff of both ministries do participate differently in social welfare policy processes, especially due to their different professional orientations. Again, other basic social services such as healthcare and schools were provided in communities where members of FHHs live but were found to be expensive. The nonexistence of creches in most communities posed a huge problem to working female household heads who are forced to leave their children with others such as relatives, neighbours and other children putting them at risk. Others are forced to pay for babysitting from their meagre resources. Finally, female household heads suggested that to improve their lives, they need education and sensitisation on their rights and the initiation of special programmes for them as well as social grants , among other things. The above findings led to the following conclusions. Firstly, social welfare policy responses to the needs of women, especially members of FHHs, are narrowly based. Most of the few existing social welfare services are not accessible to many members of FHHs, especially given the fact that they have not been identified as needing special attention. Social welfare policy is based on the concept of gender equality without the recognition of the needs and aspirations of members of FHHs. Secondly, little legislation exists with regard to members of FHHs as a whole, except for some isolated pieces in favour of divorced and widowed women. Therefore, social welfare policy is not responsive to members of FHHs in Cameroon. Furthermore, social service delivery by social workers is limited in scope, as they are primarily engaged in curative rather than developmental social work, which is all-embracing. Similarly, the staff is not well acquainted with social welfare policy processes or other legislation pertaining to women whom they are serving. The factors, among others, responsible for this are the lack of a knowledge base and training deficiencies of the staff of these ministries. Finally, female household heads have utilised their ingenuity in the struggle against the current economic malaise through self-employment, full and part-time/casual employment. However, the warding-off of poverty is an illusion given the diverse nature of their responsibilities. In the light of the above findings and conclusions, recommendations were made to various stakeholders. The need for social welfare policy to be responsive to women's needs and aspirations, especially members of FHHs as well as the need to develop women-centred care was recommended. Also, policy makers were urged to institute social grants for members of FHHs and income security for children from FHHs. Furthermore, empowerment programmes such as job and skill training backed by low interest loans were also recommended in all divisions to strengthen capacity building. Again, basic quality affordable and accessible healthcare, childcare and education were recommended for female household heads and their children. Finally, recruitment and training of social workers as well as increased budgetary allocations and the institution of a gender perspective in the budgetary process were also put forward. Social workers, it was recommended, need to practice all-embracing developmental social work. This could be enhanced through organising seminars and refresher courses for staff to keep them abreast of current theoretical and practical development in the profession. Also, social workers should undertake a re-appraisal of the profession's responses to the needs of needy and vulnerable groups such as FHHs and restructure the colonial social welfare policy that still dominates their actions. Finally, the curricula of the schools of social work need to be revised to give a sound knowledge base to social workers to enhance their engagement in social development praxis. The civil society, members of FHHs and the local communities were urged to be part of the social welfare policy processes. Finally, suggestions for further study were made.