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December 22, 2021

BY Andrew Keili

In her keynote speech delivered for the recent Anti-corruption Day on the theme “Women taking centre stage in the fight against corruption in Sierra Leone”, Justice Fatmata Bintu Alhadi, Justice of the Court of Appeal, made very thoughtful comments regarding our womenfolk and corruption.

The research for her speech was far ranging, covering the viewpoints of various groups-World Bank, UNDP, UN Women, Social scientists and other local sources. I will restate some salient points in her speech which, I believe should be required reading not only for women’s groups and the ACC but for our lawmakers.

She provides several definitions of corruption and distinguishes between grand corruption and petty corruption.

Here are a few answers she has provided on how corruption affects women:  

The limited political and economic power of women, reduces their ability to demand accountability and.or to highlight their specific experiences of and concerns about corruption.

  • Women have lower literacy levels, which often results in a limited knowledge of rights and entitlements to services and public programmes, leaving them more vulnerable to extortion and abuses by laws and enforcement officers in regulatory agencies.
  • Corruption occurs with impunity in places, where the systems that hold those in power, accountable for their actions or, that enforce sanctions against wrongdoings, are weak. This is either because duty-bearers are inaccessible, or the state has withdrawn altogether.
  • Women are disproportionately affected by corruption than men because (i) they have less socioeconomic power and, (ii) they access more public services where corruption is more likely to be prevalent. 

It is however her thoughts on empowered women that resonates most with me in light of recent happenings. She states that empowered women, who could participate in decision-making, are normally powerful actors contributing to the fight against corruption. According to her there is a strong correlation between low corruption levels, and higher women’s representation, among top-ranking public officials, and political appointees (ministers, permanent secretaries, heads of public sector agencies, etc.). Also higher women representation in decision-making structures, take place in already less corrupt environments, where gender inclusivity and mainstreaming are upheld.’

Unsurprisingly she says that for that to happen, there is a need for strengthening our laws, and institutions, guaranteeing equal rights for men and women, into policy and rules making positions, and allowing women, to fully participate in the fight against corruption. She advises that the different organs of Government, that is, the Executive, Parliament, and the Judiciary, in cohort with Civil Society, and the media, contribute to our nation’s anti-corruption efforts.  

Unfortunately, issues relating to the bullying of women in high positions has become a normal phenomenon. Over the past few years, we have witnessed a variety of activities aimed at belittling prominent women. These have included verbal abuse, making sexual innuendoes, inquisitions, suspensions, incarcerations, media attacks and accusations of corrupt practices, nepotism, or political bias. Even those with the morals of an alley cat often make unfair profane sexual remarks debasing some women. It is astonishing that the government has either been accused of being overtly or covertly complicit or of staying mute. Sometimes it even happens within a political party. Dogmatic political supporters have often joined the fray to unfairly discredit some prominent women on the national scene. Public support for these women has however been mostly overwhelming and in some cases, international transparency and governance institutions have rushed to side with some of them. The optics does not look good and the impression given is that the women are being bullied.

And here is Justice Alhadi’s advice which I reproduce almost verbatim:

She calls for “women advocacy for 30% representation together with access to leadership positions in the public and private sectors, without being subjected to bullying, intimidation, and harassment, all in a bid to achieve gender-responsive and corruption-free socio-economic development”.  As a final recommendation in her speech, she says: “female leaders should be treated with respect, dignity, and equity. There is a strong national value in having strong, well-qualified women in the lead. There is quality in the motivation that women leadership provide for young girls in our society.”

Some say the bullying of women and the promotion of chauvinism is in the DNA of the Sierra Leonean male. I think not! However, I am aware that there are some in our midst. I recall that a long time ago, my driver used to refer to any woman who tried to exercise authority over him in disparaging terms as “nyahagbamei”, meaning “an ordinary women” in Mende. He made the mortal mistake once of asking my wife, when she wanted to use the car- ’U don ask the Pa for permission eh?”-and that was how their perennial fight started! A simple case of insubordination to me by a female employee so irked him that he took up my fight, complaining to everybody- “Na da gal day. E catch the Pa underwears. Knowing that he was a master of malapropism, I figured he meant “unawares”, but wanting to avoid any possible misconceived scandal involving “underwears”, I ordered him to put the matter to rest-“Lef dis tok now bo!”.

Suffice it to say however that there are many Sierra Leonean men who respect women. Also, I am aware of the caveat that not all prominent women may do the right thing all the time and that others may have a genuine reason to disagree with them. Those, however do not justify the needless bullying. An erudite lawyer, Drucil Taylor has commented on this phenomenon in social media of disrespect for powerful women in a much better way than I would have done (permission to use this, Drucil!)

“Nar because nar Femi Claudius Cole, nar dat mek nar im unu ol? Nar because nar Lara Taylor Pearce nar dat mek unu suspend am; nar because nar Pamela Davies nar dat mek unu suspend am; nar because nar Asmaa James, nar dat mek you feel say you for cuss en threaten am; nar because Nar Yvonne Aki Sawyer nar dat mek unu bin cuss am? Nar because nar Sylvia Blyden nar dat mek unu arrest im en e picture we heng nar e pala? “

He goes on to say: “As a country, we are not really ready for women in the leadership space. We pay lip service; most times we even feign moves that speak to gender empowerment but there is an essence for mental adjustment to accommodate the reality that men and women must share this space for steady development of our nation.”

He however notes a very salient point that most female groups tend to be selective in reacting to cases where women and girls are being victimised because of their gender and says this may undermine such a movement that fights against the unfair treatment of women. He cites the case of Sylvia Blyden and Pamela Davies, which he says received little support from women’s groups.

His advice: “We must all do better by starting to raise our boys to appreciate females as our equals. As a society, we must stand against bullying of our women and girls. We have to learn to respect women and it must start from the home. It is a long process but eventually it would cascade upwards to the State and this must be a conscious decision. All campaigns for Women empowerment is bound to fail if boys are not raised to respect women and girls.”

We must as a nation promote women’s independence and decision making in public life and private relationships. Violence and sexual harassment also affect women’s ability to take full part in other spheres of power and decision-making, be it in banks, corporate boardrooms, mass media, academic and scientific institutions, and regional and international organizations. Little wonder that the Beijing conference agreement dubbed women in power and decision making one of 12 critical areas of concern. It called for measures ensuring women’s equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making.

I would add to this by advising the government which has touted its strong support for inclusiveness and empowerment of women and is on the verge of passing a relevant bill to practice what they preach and adopt a zero tolerance to this phenomenon.

Thanks to Justice Alhadi for enlightening us about how greater women empowerment can in general help with the fight against corruption and to both her and Drucil Taylor for shedding light on the sad plight of prominent women who are bullied. Because of your wisdom, Bintu, I am almost tempted to transfer my allegiance from Annie Walsh to Saint Joseph’s convent! Who knows? When I saw the pictures of you and the other the illustrious and powerful Convent girls who have made your mark in various spheres of life in Sierra Leone at your 185th anniversary celebrations on social media, my respect for Convent increased in leaps and bounds-Glenna Thompson, Marcella Samba Sesay, Yvonne Aki-Sawyer, Miatta French, Antonia Caramba Coker, Emerica King, Miriam Conteh Morgan, Miatta Samba (unavoidably absent), Yvette Shears (absent as usual), the thought clicked in my mind that the Reverend Mothers did a good job of bringing up such good (and troublesome?) women.

Ponder Justice Alhadi’s thoughts when she says female leaders should be treated with respect, dignity, and equity. Ponder my thoughts.

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