FEATURE: International Women’s Day: Successes and challenges of women in Sierra Leone

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By Ishmael Dumbuya

 As Sierra Leone joins other countries in celebrating and commemorating International Women’s Day on March 8th on the theme: digital Innovation and technology for gender equality,this writer would attempt to shed light on some of the successes and challenges faced by women in the country.

The International Women’s Day is a global holiday celebrated annually on March 8th as a focal point in the women’s rights movement, bringing attention to issues such as gender equality, reproductive rights, and violence and abuse against women.

In a local context, what is the status of women in Sierra Leone when it comes to equality, inclusion, as well as political representation? It has been a monumental promise among political parties whenever they intend coming to power; they claim to provide a level playing field wherein women can be represented.

From the earliest days of computing to the present age of virtual reality and artificial intelligence, women have made untold contributions to the digital world in which we increasingly live.

Couple of months ago, President Bio signed a new Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Act  2022, that seeks to open up the country’s political space and establish a level playing field for women in politics.

Political parties are now required to ensure that 30% of their candidates for parliamentary and local council elections are women. According to recent census survey, there are more women (over 50%) in the country than men, yet like most African countries, men dominate and control the economic, political, and social life of the country.

For instance, Of the 146 MPs in the country’s parliament, only 12.3% are currently women, and advocates of women’s rights are hoping that this new law will encourage more women to enter politics.

Speaking at the signing ceremony, President Bio said: “For me, women’s economic empowerment and protection are not political rhetoric. Empowering women is essential to the health and social development of families, communities, and countries. Women can reach their full potential when they live safe, fulfilled, productive lives.

The new gender empowerment law tends to remove the barriers of political representation in the country.

The key provisions of this law speak to the principles of inclusion, representation, participation, and a more responsive posture on gender. These include at least 30% representation in Cabinet; at least 30% representation in Parliament; at least 30% of all appointments as Ambassadors/High Commissioners; at least 30% of all positions in Local Councils; at least 30% of all jobs in the Civil Service; at least 30% of all jobs in private institutions with 25 and more employees; maternal leave extended from 12 weeks to 14 weeks; and financial inclusion for women.

Now let’s delve into some of the challenges encountered by women in politics and other spheres in Sierra Leone.

Foremost, a lot of feminist organizations believe that these rights that have been given to them are merely on document and are not implemented or executed.

Gender-based violence, discrimination and genital mutilation are some of the many challenges women in Sierra Leone face. In comparison to males within the nation, a woman’s “voice, visibility, participation and representation in elective and appointment positions” is substantially less. Women in Sierra Leone face severe marginalization despite their significant “contributions to the economy” and the sustenance of their households.

                       Genital Mutilation

Active membership in secret societies has detrimental impacts on girls and women in Sierra Leone. These inconspicuous societies stand as significant “cultural institutions” steeped in ancient rituals that Sierra Leoneans believe “protect communities against evil and guide adolescent girls to womanhood.” Sierra Leone holds “one of the highest rates of [female genital mutilation]” globally with 90% of girls and women aged 15 to 49 enduring the violating procedure. Female community members often perform genital mutilation procedures “without anesthetic,” using knives, razors and even shards of glass. Female genital mutilation, in addition to risks of extensive hemorrhaging, can result in a multitude of medical problems ranging “from infections and cysts to infertility and complications in childbirth.”

               Gender-Based Violence

Almost 50% of Sierra Leonean females endure sexual or physical violence during their lifetime. Throughout the Sierra Leone Civil War, “widespread and systematic sexual violence against women and girls” was a common occurrence. This extreme brutality, often at the hands of rebel groups and Civil Defense Forces, affected girls and women of all ages.

The first is that Sierra Leonean society sees certain types of violence in a relationship as warranted and acceptable. In addition, women who report cases of domestic violence face harsh judgment and shame from the community, which is why many choose to remain silent. The legal system also does not see cases of violence involving married women as a priority, but rather, a personal matter that requires a resolution within the confines of a home. In general, many citizens do not have faith in the legal system. The lack of competency within the fragmented legal system continues to generate leniency for perpetrators, contributing to the prevalence of abuse toward women.

             Marginalization in the Workforce

Women in Sierra Leone have long generated significant advances in the economy and frequently serve a key part in ensuring their households’ survival. In rural Sierra Leone, women perform more than 60% of the agricultural work necessary for food production in the nation. Males, however, continue to have stronger opportunities for management and influence of the industry, ultimately demoting females to inferior jobs, according to USAID.

            Barriers to Education

Girls are less likely to remain in school as compared to boys due to factors such as child marriage, early pregnancy and gender roles that dictate a female must take on household responsibilities. Additionally, it is extremely rare for a female to continue her education after marriage or pregnancy — “less than 2%” of married females between the ages of 15 and 19 attend school. Due to these cultural norms, women in Sierra Leone are chronically undereducated, a factor that has far-reaching impacts.

             Lack of Political Representation

Women in Sierra Leone confront significant challenges when joining the political arena. They face difficulty when navigating disproportionately male-dominated political structures, such as in “accessing male-dominated political networks and making allies, in financing election campaigns and in commanding respect.” Women also often face gender-based discrimination within the political domain. Lower levels of literacy as well as inadequate knowledge of rights and “political processes” further limits females’ capacity to participate on an equal ground alongside males and successfully advocate for fellow women.

Despite the discrimination they endure, women in Sierra Leone can look to a brighter future as organizations empower them with the resources and skills to rise up against women’s rights violations and lift themselves out of poverty.

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