March 10, 2015 By Gabriel Benjamin
As the world celebrates another International Women’s Day (IWD), Sierra Leonean women are mourning the loss of lives due to the outbreak of Ebola in the country. The epidemic which struck the country in May last year, has claimed over 3,000 souls so far. A visit to most of the rural areas and major cities would reveal that women are struggling, painfully, to eke a living for their families. But government is being enjoined to ‘Make It Happen’. There is also a clarion call for effective action for advancing and recognizing women alongside reflecting on opportunities and challenges facing them.
IWD is an annual event held on March 8 every year to celebrate women and their achievements – social, political, educational and economic, while calling for greater equality and focusing world attention on areas requiring further action. It is also designed to sensitize people to the rights and plights of women globally.
Various NGOs and government adopt relevant themes or launch campaigns specific to local context to mark the Day. The UN, Oxfam, Women for Women, Care International, Plan, World Association of Girl Guides & Girl Scouts (WAGGGS) and more, implement exciting and powerful campaigns that raise awareness of, and encourage donations for, good causes for women. But the UN has been declaring an annual equality theme for many years.
The first IWD took place on March 19, 1911. The Day was later moved to March 8, in 1913. In 1977, the United Nations General Assembly invited member states to proclaim March 8 as the UN day for women’s rights and international peace, with the aim of assisting nations globally to eliminate inequality and discrimination against women. Since then, member states, including Sierra Leone, have continued to celebrate this annual event. 37 years after this declaration, it is desirable to appraise how well Sierra Leone has done in bridging the gender gap.
There is no doubt that little has been achieved in this area, save for a few government agencies where women are visibly represented and holding forte. Generally, women still represent a very small percentage of those serving in decision-making bodies at national and regional levels in the country with only 13 percent as MPs and 19 percent as local councilors, despite various campaign by women groups for years to get a 30 percent quota for women in elected and appointed positions – the only way, they say to get women into government. A bill to get this done was dismissed by parliament in 2012.
Such official discriminatory practice and chauvinism is inconsistent with Article 13 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, Article 7 of the Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and the Protocol to African Charter on the Rights of Women, which provide that women shall have the right to equal participation in public offices and hold same on equal terms with their male counterparts.
The not-too encouraging numerical strength of women in leadership positions across the country implies that they continue to play a second fiddle role, with their contribution to governance and policy making greatly retarded. Women should not be on the back-foot wherever political decisions are taken and the opinion of women is required.
In April 2001, African heads of state met in Abuja, Nigeria, and set a target to commit at least 15% of their annual budget to improve the health sector with special focus on pregnant women and lactating mothers. However, these leaders’ attitudes and commitment towards this ought to be sustained in order to meet the much anticipated reduction in maternal deaths.
According to the World Bank 2013 data, with over 1,100 deaths per 100,000, Sierra Leone ranked number one in maternal mortality. Chief among the factors responsible for this high maternal mortality is a lack of adequate maternal health care and facilities, corruption, poor health system, and high illiteracy among women.
Even more worrisome is that, despite the September 2000 agreement by over 188 countries, including Sierra Leone, to reduce by half maternal mortality by 2015, the persistent deaths of women due to complications of pregnancies and childbirth still remain a major debacle. Following closely is the increasing spate of violence against women, cases of rape, and spousal murder.
However, government appears to be serious in its quest to reduce maternal deaths and to stem the tide of violence against women. President Ernest Bai Koroma in April 2010 launched a “Free Health Care Service” for pregnant women, lactating mothers and children under five. The program was expected to cover 230,000 pregnant women and around one million children under the ages of five. The UK Government’s contribution towards this goal amounts to £11,062,623 until March 2014. UNICEF also received $7 million from the Department for International Development (DfID) to provide medicines for pregnant women, while the World Health Organization (WHO) has provided blood banks in each major town. Even with such efforts, accessibility, affordability and availability of the “Free Health Care Service” remain a fundamental challenge to women in the country.
Nonetheless, it is common knowledge that in the midst of pain, sorrow and abject poverty, Sierra Leonean women make up 52 percent of Sierra Leone’s population – the highest number of voters and, when appointed to positions, they tend to make a huge difference. They also have less criminal and corrupt records, says Mrs. Goodie Sowonie, Deputy Director, Gender in the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs.
As we celebrate this year’s IWD, government must ensure that school enrollment for the girl child increases, and that girls are no longer married out early. ‘Let girls remain girls’; we should cease to have teenage brides.
Other practices such as female genital mutilation, early child birth, forced labour, child trafficking, and a lack of opportunities for self-advancement of the women folks must be addressed urgently. Government should also repeal and abolish all laws, official policies and customs, which discriminate against women. The ongoing review of the constitution provides a window for Sierra Leone to stamp out gender discriminatory laws and practices. In order to ensure that the gap in women’s education is addressed, governments at all levels should dedicate sizable chunks of their budgets to issues pertaining to women.
With the public, media and civil society groups lending their voices to the call for women’s empowerment, the government could take more actions that will save women’s lives and enhance their welfare in the society. We need to create a women-friendly environment. Together, we can ‘Make It Happen’, even with Ebola!