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Sierra Leone women need more than laws to make it happen

March 20, 2015 By Ahmed Sahid Nasralla (De Monk)

As celebrations of International Women’s Day continue after March 8th, Sierra Leonean girls and women can draw a lot of inspiration from their history. Historically, the country’s women contributed hugely in the political, social, economical, educational and civil rights development of the nation.

From Madam Lehbu, who became Queen of Upper Gaura in 1891 following the establishment of the Province of Freedom in 1787 (what is now known as Freetown); the Sherbro Queen Yamacouba, who was a signatory to the treaty of 1787 which ceded the land to the British; Madam Yoko, the powerful Queen of Kpaa Mende Seneghum; the contribution of Hannah Benka-Coker to education; Lati Hyde-Forster, the first woman to graduate from Fourah Bay College, University of Sierra Leone, with a doctor of civil laws degree; the role of Betsy Carew to commerce in the 1830s; Adelaide Casely-Hayford, one of the pioneers of women’s rights in Freetown and who founded the ‘Girls Industrial and Technical Training School’ with the aim to make women economically self reliant; to Constance Cummings-John, the first elected woman Mayor in Africa and Frances Wright, the first female lawyer in Sierra Leone, who later became magistrate, legal adviser to the British High Commission in Freetown and a champion of women’s rights, to name but a few.

In succeeding decades Sierra Leone women have built strong pillars on this foundation with many now excelling in governance and politics, the civil service, the private sector, the security forces, in academia, arts and entertainment and more. Today, inspiration can be drawn from key achievers against all odds such as the Barefoot Women from Konta line and the nurses who are making a lot of sacrifice in the Ebola fight.

However, the road is still bumpy and far ahead for the average Sierra Leonean woman, especially in remote rural settings, who, with a baby strapped to her back, toils the soil, fetches water from the distance stream, carries firewood on her head from the bush, and pounds the native rice to cook the family’s daily meal.

There is still a long way to go for the average woman who at a very early age is given by her parents to marriage and starts bearing children in her childhood; the average woman who ignorantly humbly accepts the excesses of her husband as the obligations of marriage; the average woman who age-old traditions deny the right to the property of her deceased husband; the average woman who cannot aspire for a decision-making position in her village because tradition do not allow her; the average woman who has to sell her body to get money to feed herself and her family; the average woman who continues to endure the harassment of her teacher/lecturer to trade sex for passing grades; the average woman who continues to suffer the indignity of rape, domestic violence and sexual harassment; the average woman who suffers in jail because she fails to pay a meager debt; the average woman who dies while exercising her reproductive health right or while giving birth; the average woman who still carries the largest scar of the past decade-long rebel war and now bears the brunt of the Ebola outbreak.

Pro-women organizations have been seeking equality and justice for the country’s women through two main fronts: enactment of the right legislations and advocating for increase political inclusion.

On the legislative front, the last decade has seen the passing of the landmark three Gender Acts (Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act 2007- as amended in 2009, Devolution of Estate Act 2007, and Domestic Violence Act of 2007 ), and the Child Rights Act of 2007 and the recent Sexual Offences Act of 2012. These put together seek to protect and advance the status of women in the country. For example, according to one of the laws, women in customary marriage now have the right to own, lease and rent land; a right hitherto denied them.

But to have the right laws in place to address the situation is one thing. Whether these laws are understood by the general public and enforced or implemented by the relevant authorities is entirely another huge challenge.

Mariama Dumbuya, a former President of L.A.W.Y.E.R.S- an organization of young female lawyers providing free legal representation and advice to protect and promote the rights of women in the country, agrees that even though the gender laws have helped to put issues affecting the welfare of Sierra Leone women at the forefront there is significant need for effective and proper implementation of these laws.

“The status of women has improved a bit with the passing of these laws. But the problem now is implementation. We are trying, but we need to do more to reduce domestic violence and sexual offences for example. We need people to come out and report these abuses rather than suffering in silence and we need to strengthen our legal system and provide forensic and DNA facilities at minimal cost,” said Mariama, who is a partner in the firm of Lambert & Partners and continues to do charitable human rights work.

This concern is shared by Jamesina King, Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sierra Leone.

“These laws, also reflected in the last pillar in the government’s Agenda for Prosperity, are a step in the right direction. However, their implementation remains a challenge; institutions are weak and women become frustrated in their attempts to seek justice or to access benefits meant for them,” said King.

Indeed the laws say one thing but the reality on the ground speaks differently.

In Kailahun, in Eastern Sierra Leone, for example, within the last two months the Family Support Unit in collaboration with the Regional Office of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children Affairs in the District, transferred 10 cases of alleged rape against women to the court in Kenema for trial. However, officials say all 10 cases ended up being settled outside the court with each affected family accepting Le700, 000 (Seven Hundred Thousand Leones) in compensation.

In the same district also, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) reported that they recorded about 50 gender based violence (GBV) cases ranging from physical abuse, sexual abuse and rape to economic deprivation relating to Ebola.

At the national level the picture is gloomier. According to statistics released by the Family Support Unit of the Sierra Leone Police, a total of 11, 358 cases of child sexual abuse, domestic violence and rape against women and girls were recorded in 2014.

In Freetown, the capital city where the Judiciary sits, there was a case involving a ‘prominent lawyer’ who was found guilty of molesting his wife identified as Zainab, and was fined a ludicrous One Million Leones as penalty by the presiding Judge.

Furthermore, it is even confusing to realize that some of these laws relating to issues of women are in themselves un-protective of women or discriminatory against the very women they seek to protect.

For example, the Devolution of Estates Act 2007 provides that a woman is deemed married to a man after co-habiting as husband and wife for continuously 5 years. However, although there are provisions in another Act- the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act 2007, as amended in 2009, for this union or co-habitation to be made legal through registration, some men are taunting the provision by saying that they will stay with their women in the pretext of marriage for four (4) years and throw them out before the union clocks five (5) years to escape the provisions of the law.

There’s also the Registration of Customary Marriage and Divorce Act, which provides for the registration of all marriages contracted customarily. Women find its provisions very difficult to abide by. Also the necessary requirements made by the Local Councils who are deemed fit to register such marriages is also a challenge for the women of Sierra Leone.

Take also sub Section 27 of the 1991 Constitution as another case in point.  The beginning of the section guarantees non-discrimination yet went on to give exceptions in sub section 4d that in the case of adoption, devolution of property, burial, etc, there can be discrimination.

If the laws on adoption and devolution of estate, for example, do not discriminate it is wrong for the parent law, the Constitution, to carry such discriminatory section that is even contrary to Section 15 of the same Constitution, which also guarantees non-discrimination.

Similarly, in the country’s citizenship law, Sierra Leonean identity is achieved through paternity. What happens to the children of a native woman then when the father is a foreigner and has abandoned them and returned to his homeland?

Also in the area of Chieftaincy, by virtue of our Chieftaincy Act Sierra Leone women cannot be Paramount Chiefs except tradition permits. Therefore some women in certain parts of Sierra Leone are better than the others because tradition is by itself discriminatory. This is why women Paramount Chiefs in places like the North and Kono in the South are unheard of. It matters not whether the woman is from a ruling house. Although the Act does not specifically say women, but by interpretation it is obvious it excludes women because it’s generally known that the ‘Poro Society’ is not open to women in the context of tradition and Paramount Chieftaincy rights.

In the area of advocacy, the loudest voice has been for the 30% political quota for women. As the Constitutional Review process continues women want this to be reflected in the new laws. Women organizations believe that increase political participation or inclusion will greatly enhance the status of the country’s women.

Indeed there has been increase in the number of women in decision-making positions in their communities at various levels and in the governance of the state. Women are beginning to actively participate in development activities.

But, like the laws, that is just a starting point. How they utilize such positions to make it happen for the ordinary woman and the next generation of women should be the focus.

Going forward, according to Commissioner King, research has to be conducted to get accessible, credible, qualitative and quantitative data on the situation of Sierra Leone women in different spheres.

“This will help in developing strategies and programs to address gender issues and women’s advancement. And then we will really know whether we are actually succeeding or failing,” said King.

Yet the question remains: who’ll make all these happen?