Yaoundé — More and more young Cameroonian women are taking up smoking. But they are usually doing it out of the sight of their parents. Some in Cameroon society regard tobacco consumption as a sign of emancipation; others see it as a bad sign of the times.
In Cameroon, men rarely accept the company of smoking women. Patrick, a 25 year-old student, even goes as far as calling them "bad girls". "When a girl has lived under parental supervision, it's very unlikely that she will become a smoker. A girl who smokes is a loose girl or one with bad friends," says Patrick.
Patrick would probably not get along with Alice, a student at the Teacher's Training School in Yaoundé. This 23 year-old smoker acknowledges that her ex-boyfriends all share distaste for cigarettes. "They knew that I was a smoker when they were courting me. They probably hoped they could convince me to quit. But it didn't work," she explains.
One reason why smoking among women gets such bad press in Cameroon is because it happens most often in nightclubs, bars and other similar places of entertainment. For example, in Yaoundé's Essos neighbourhood, dozens of young girls, some of whom are underage, can be found smoking in various bars every night and, especially, on weekends. And when in more upmarket bars, smoking girls are often mistaken for prostitutes.
"There are indeed many prostitutes here. They smoke to keep warm, because they work late at night," explains Cyrille who is responsible for security in one of the bars. "And sometimes the cigarette is a sign by which a prostitute can be easily identified and approached," admits Cyrille. "But that's not the only sign," he adds. "Prostitutes are also identifiable by their extremely revealing clothes."
Alice disagrees. "It's just a bad cliché," says Alice. "The reason young girls meet in bars at night to smoke is because they are not allowed to do so at home."
Imitation and emancipation
Alice admits that she started smoking to emulate her friends. "I saw some of my friends smoking so I tried it and it became a habit -- to the point that I sometimes smoke three packs a day." Influenced by their friends or by cable television series where they see women smoking freely, young Cameroonian girls are taking up smoking, often without their parents' knowledge.
"Of course I never smoke when I'm at home. But as soon as I go out at night, I light up," grins Alice. She says that as a young girl she feels emancipated by smoking. Not only is she breaking the rules set by her parents, but smoking also draws the attention of men.
Although more and more young Cameroonian women are taking up smoking, they are also aware of the dangers of tobacco. "Although I am a smoker, I do hope that my three year-old daughter never starts smoking," says Alice. But she's also aware that it is very difficult for mothers to monitor rebellious daughters.
"My mother eventually found out that I was a smoker," says Alice with a cigarette in her hand. "One day, she took me to see a doctor who took an X-ray of my lungs. But then he showed me someone else's results to frighten me. My mother had arranged it with the doctor. What I saw was horrible and it did scare me. I did end up trying to quit but I couldn't."